The Importance of Student Voice and Advocacy at Community Colleges

by Colvin T. Georges Jr. / Oct 3, 2019

I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion led by Chaddrick James-Gallaway, a research associate at the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL). This discussion centered on the importance of student voice and advocacy as part of the Illinois Community College Board’s (ICCB) Forum for Excellence in Bloomington, Illinois. This discussion included a majority of white student leaders who served as board members on the Student Advisory Committee (SAC). This committee advises the ICCB on policies and system-wide issues that impact students in the Illinois Community College system. All of these students were new to their roles, with the exception of one who served in leadership previously. Along with students, there were several staff members present.

James-Gallaway created an environment where student leaders were able to actively engage in sensitive conversations they may not have felt comfortable discussing openly elsewhere due to their limited understanding of inclusive terminologies and cross-cultural experiences. To initiate the discussion, he began with an activity in which students introduced themselves to one another and shared details about their institutional affiliation, major, and professional experiences. This portion of the conversation served as a springboard for students to learn more about each other and understand how the diverse social identities that were represented impacted community college campuses, especially identities that are underrepresented based on race, gender, age, and in other ways.

Following the introductory activity, James-Gallaway covered various topics throughout the event and engaged students through group dialogue and media. I identified several themes throughout, which included students’ relationships with the board of trustees at their respective community colleges, the importance of their voices and ability to advocate for their peers, and a deeper understanding of social identities through a newly developed equitable lens. This was followed by a few key takeaways and recommendations, all of which will be discussed in this blog post based on my interpretation and experience.

Relationships with Board of Trustees at Community Colleges

The relationships that students had with the board of trustees on their respective campuses varied. Some students had positive interactions where they felt comfortable having conversations with board members and that their views mattered. They were comfortable voicing any concerns they felt would negatively impact students. Some students even valued the professional experiences of their board members because of the various professional fields they came from such as law and business.

How are you supposed to create effective decisions if you don't know the students?" — Student Advisory Committee member

However, there were other students who did not know who their board of trustees were and felt as though their voices did not matter and were not being taken seriously. One student stated, “For my board of trustees, it was terrifying because it’s like being a little kid sitting at the grownup table and they don’t treat me—they don’t care, they don’t really know the students, which sucks because how are you supposed to create effective decisions if you don’t know the students?”  There was an interesting correlation here because the students who felt comfortable having conversations with board members were white males, whereas those who did not feel comfortable and did not have positive engagement were from underrepresented groups. This led to conversations about students questioning if their votes truly mattered to the boards at their respective campuses. Students questioned this because they recognized that their votes were only to “advise” the board of trustees on how they should make decisions—they did not have full voting rights. This left some students to question their value to the board of trustees.

In addition, James-Gallaway emphasized to the students that it is vital for them to speak up and share their concerns.  Student leaders should also be proactive and talk to the members of the board directly, he said.  This is one of the most important ways they can garner influence, which will in turn better support the needs of their peers from underrepresented backgrounds who do not have access to the board members regularly. James-Gallaway encouraged students to be observant of how their board members vote and learn whether their decisions are equitable and truly in the best interest of the diverse student bodies. If they are not, they are empowered to use their voices to advocate for systemic change. 

Importance of Student Voice and Advocacy

James-Gallaway asked the students why they joined SGA on their campuses. Responses included leadership roles, funding opportunities (not all students were funded as a result of being involved in SGA; this could impact students’ motivation), gaining professional experiences, and being an advocate for their peers. Seeing the diverse responses, James-Gallaway encouraged students to make sure they are representing every students’ voice in their community. He provided this formal description of student voice:

“Student voice refers to the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds of individual students and groups of students in a school, and to institutional approaches and techniques that are based on student choices, interests, passions and ambitions.” 

This was an excellent description as it was rooted in the foundations of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It was clear by the looks on some students’ faces that they never thought about their leadership roles in this way prior to this discussion. It was in these very moments—as students self-reflected and were challenged to think deeper about their leadership roles—that they were being given a space to learn from others and share their lack of understanding in hopes of clarity.

Social Identities Through a Newly Developed Equitable Lens

As the session continued, James-Gallaway navigated complex conversations with ease, which allowed him to meet students where they were at developmentally. The need for students from minoritized social backgrounds to have different sets of resources was the focus at this point. Students were being equipped with the necessary tools and equity-centered research that would enhance their abilities to advocate for their peers. They were also provided with a strong understanding of why equitable practices are critical for community colleges nationwide, especially since such a large population of people who hold minoritized social identities begin their collegiate careers at two-year institutions. 

Students were taught the definition of equity as “the process of identifying how disparities affect the educational opportunities of students based on marginalized social identities and subsequently developing strategic solutions to take systemic actions to redress these inequities.” There were some students who struggled to understand this definition and could not conceptualize how it was considered fair. James-Gallaway then presented students with a picture depicting equality versus equity. More specifically, the picture showed three runners about to start a race on a track field. Looking at the picture, which depicted equality, students could see that while the runners were all starting at the same point, the runner in the inner lane had a shorter distance than those in the two outer lanes. Conversely, when looking at the picture depicting equity, the starting points were all staggered, ensuring that each runner ran the same distance. This connected back to students’ role as leaders on their community college campuses by emphasizing that everyone who matriculates to college starts at different points and may need different levels of support in order to succeed based on their circumstances—and some of these circumstances are uncontrollable. For instance, some students enter college from low-income backgrounds and are underprepared and need additional resources such as specialized programs, funding, and mentorship. This is prevalent among students of color.

On the flip side, there are students who enter college from affluent backgrounds and are already prepared because they may not have been the first in their families to attend college, they can pay tuition without having to borrow loans, and perhaps they already took college-level courses in high school, which exposed them to the rigors of postsecondary education well before their peers from underrepresented backgrounds. As a result, these students do not need the same resources.  The challenge here is that many higher education institutions fail to provide equitable resources to meet the diverse needs of these students, which then leads to poor academic performance, irregular enrollment patterns, and lack of completion. This is where student voice and advocacy can play a major role by way of influence and intervention. While these students who participated in this discussion were not writing institutional-wide policies, nor allocating funds to departments, they can now use their voices to advocate for equitable practices to be embedded in all decision-making efforts across the institution, beginning at the very top with the board of trustees.

Key Takeaways and Recommendations

  • The board of trustees at community colleges should be diverse and reflective of the student demographics. Based on these conversations with student leaders, some of them felt uncomfortable engaging with board members and others did not know who they were, particularly students from minoritized backgrounds. If board members are responsible for the governance and ensuring the best interest of the campus communities, it is important that healthier relationships are established among students, especially those who serve in advisory capacities to the board. This could help board members make well-informed decisions by understanding the campus climate and the needs of students from all backgrounds. Student leaders’ voices would be better utilized and influential, ensuring that equity is at the center of every aspect of campus life.
  • There is a need for institutions to formally create opportunities for students to engage in cross-cultural experiences with peers from diverse backgrounds. Having students to engage in cross-cultural experiences will lead to a better understanding of different beliefs, values, and assumptions. This will also provide opportunities for students to understand the intersectionality of multiple social identities such as students of color who are differently abled and adult learners of color who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.  When students are able to connect and learn about the diverse views of others, it equips them with tools they need to be able to genuinely engage in a pluralistic society post-graduation, which is an outcome for many institutions of higher education today.
  • Most of the students who were part of this discussion held privileged social identities such as being white and cisgender male and never had to think about (or consider) the needs and opportunity gaps for people from underrepresented backgrounds. While this conversation allowed students to unpack topics on equity versus equality, social identities, and diversity, there is still additional dialogue that needs to occur in which student leaders holding privileged identities can learn how to consciously use their voices to enact change on their campuses along with doing their part in ensuring that equity is embedded in all policies and practices that will impact the student body.
  • There needs to be continuous conversations with students on topics related to equity versus equality along with concrete examples of how their voices can be used to advocate for equitable practices and policies across their institutions to better support the needs of students from minoritzed social backgrounds. While this discussion helped students to understand the importance of having an equitable lens, there needs to be ongoing trainings and group dialogue to ensure that students are equipped with the tools to advocate for their peers and speak up against any injustices they see on their respective campuses. This would be a wonderful opportunity to engage the campus advisers for these groups, especially since they frequently meet with these student leaders. There could be meaningful conversations and exercises that promote students’ understanding of equity in executive board retreats, leadership trainings, general body meetings, and establishing programs that liberate the voices of students from oppressed social identity groups.

View the slides from the September 23 presentation.