Today I attended the Student Voice Summit held by Block 58 on the University of Chicago campus. Students from the University of Chicago, along with students from Northwestern University and surrounding high schools, gathered to discuss how students’ voices play into education. The description of the event reads:
Too often, students’ voices are left unheard by policymakers and leaders. From issues in education to issues in community development, Chicago’s leaders must look to young leaders to build stronger neighborhoods, stronger communities, and ultimately a stronger city.
The event included leaders from student groups across Chicago high school and college campuses. I enjoyed that the conversation was not limited to issues of education, but revolved around the work that students are doing to impact their school communities on a variety of issues. The panel and Q&A was probably my favorite component of the summit, as we heard from leaders from the University of Chicago’s Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance (SDA) and Northwestern’s Class Confessions. These student leaders spoke about their experiences with student leadership and the difficulties of mobilizing a student movement, particularly the difficulties of mobilizing around the realities of socioeconomic status, often considered a taboo subject to speak out about. They spoke of the wide variety of issues that low-income students face, such as social isolation, adjustment to a new environment, asking for academic help, finding financial resources, code-switching between home and school, and balancing paying work with being a full-time student.
The student leaders on this panel spoke about their dedication to community-building, work that is important for low-income students as well as campuses at large. Especially for low-income students who have not been exposed to the culture of academia before, isolation can be devastating to the student’s ability to succeed. For these students, having relationships with and the support of peers with similar backgrounds can be key to success. Just this past week Paul Tough wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine called “Who Gets to Graduate?” Tough writes about Professor David Laude at UT Austin who recognized the unique challenges that low-income students face once they get to college, and the immense obstacles that stand between them and graduation. As a professor, he implemented additional classes for these students at-risk of falling behind, and by giving them extra support and resources, helped them achieve at even better levels than their higher-income peers. Professor Laude, who now serves as Senior Vice Provost at UT Austin, recognized the need for community-building to help low-income students succeed. He founded the University Leadership Network in order to gather students with financial need and help them gain leadership skills in the university setting.
While programs such as those implemented by Professor Laude are laudable, it is important to recognize the additional benefits of community-building via student-led mobilization efforts. Student leaders in UChicago’s SDA and Northwestern’s Class Confessions have a student’s perspective and can fill needs that administrators may not understand (for instance, SDA is working to publish guides that list restaurants which offer student discounts). Ultimately, the most profound success will probably be derived by combining the skills and resources of both university officials and student leaders. Faculty, administrators, and students must join forces in order to create an environment in which all students can openly discuss their challenges and find the resources they need to thrive socially and academically in the university setting.