Michelson 20MM OER Program Manager Cailyn Nagle addresses student leaders at the Student Senate for California Community Colleges event. Photo by Phil McCarten.

By Cailyn Nagle

It is time to retire “student voice.” I do not mean we should stop listening to the voices of students, but that students deserve so much more than passive listening. Students deserve more than a voice, they deserve to have their unique expertise recognized and they deserve the agency to act on that expertise. This past weekend at the Student Senate for California Community Colleges (SSCCC) Professional Development and Leadership Training, that student agency, expertise and action came together in a way that enabled change.  

I had the joy of attending and presenting at the SSCCC event, in which the Michelson 20MM Foundation served as a sponsor. And yes, after a year and a half of interactions behind a screen, face-to-face conversations with active student leadership was very much a joy. Dozens of students gathered (masked and vaccinated) in conference rooms, with more than a hundred participating remotely, to build the skills they need as leaders within the CCC system. Throughout the event I had conversations with students who were thrilled with the projects they were launching, ready to build connections with other student leaders across the state. I also heard from some who were genuinely frustrated with the limitations they faced when trying to make change. More and more, “the student voice has become a box those in positions of power check to affirm conclusions already reached or plans already in motion. Watching students from across California develop skills and connections to improve their campus and represent their student body reaffirmed my conclusion that “student voice” is not enough to describe what they were building or what is needed. 

Students shared their experiences during the professional development and leadership training session. Photo by Phil McCarten.

Over lunch with students from Cypress College I heard perspectives on community, education, the meaning of happiness, and, of course, the high cost of college textbooks. Throughout the conference, I spoke with students who struggled to afford courseware and materials. Some of the students had creative solutions to get around paywalls, but others just accepted the hit to their grade as the only acceptable choice when faced with limited resources. Other students were exasperated with the creeping spread of inclusive access programs on their campuses, not just the unwanted surprise fees but also the lack of support they received when the billed courseware inevitably had bugs. 

Students are the Experts

Later in the conference I came back to these conversations during Chancellor Daisy Gonzales’ address when she said, “Imagining what the world could look like is exactly where you need to be.” The most exciting moments of the conference were students doing just that—imagining education that is accessible, equitable, and liberatory. Later in her talk, Chancellor Gonzales brought up another excellent point: You (the student) are an expert. 

Expertise comes in as many forms as there are people. While it’s true that many students enter college with some type of formal experience or build it during their attendance, all students are experts at their own experience. They know what it’s like to register for classes while managing their degree requirements and outside responsibilities. They know what it’s like to compete with family for broadband access during finals season. They know a thousand other things that might never occur to a non-student. This expertise is valuable and needs to be relied on if higher education can hope to imagine a campus that serves the entire community’s needs. 

What Students Deserve

Recognizing expertise is not enough on its own. Students need to be allowed agency to use their expertise to form positions independently and advocate for those positions. Students in the SSCCC do this through their organization, but what about spaces like textbook affordability working groups, campus bookstore committees, or any of the other smaller decision-making bodies found throughout higher education? Decision makers should challenge themselves and ask: If our student representative disagrees strongly, would we move forward without their support? Moving forward without student buy-in might take into account “student voice,” but it demonstrates a lack of meaningful student agency.

Students developed skills and strategies around effective advocacy. Photo by Phil McCarten.)

When it came to textbook affordability, inclusive access, environmental initiatives, campus policing, or any of the important issues students raised, many had ideas or plans for addressing them. When decisions are made that will impact their education or health of their community, students deserve to be in the rooms where decisions are being made, not a focus group to affirm those decisions. Students deserve to be on equal footing with every other decision maker at that table. They need full proportional time in discussion, choice in options, and voting representation. 

When agency, expertise, and action come together, it brings us to what students really need—the ability to create change. To put it more succinctly, students deserve power.

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.