BTtoP Highlights the Student Voice in Higher Education at Third Student Conference

In early October, the Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BTtoP) brought students together in Washington, DC for its Third Annual National Student Conference on “Student Voice and Higher Education: Communicating and Engaging on Campus as a ‘Millennial’ Student to Enrich Educational Outcomes.”

The conference attracted fifty students from a wide range of campuses across the nation, largely in teams of three or more, to highlight students’ own voices and ideas both within the Project and across the many grantee institutions the Project supports. The idea for the conference theme emerged from a controversial “Millennials” session at the 2008 BTtoP National Annual Working Conference. In this session, it was clear from conversation about the Millennial generation that faculty, administrators, staff, and students needed more opportunities to discuss openly generational issues within higher education. The Project’s first step in organizing the October conference was to gather reactions from the students themselves.

To provide context for the first major session of the conference, “Millennial Happenings,” students were presented with widely held opinions and bodies of research about the Millennial generation. (Only one-third of the audience had ever heard of this term as a description of their own generation.) They were then asked to respond and share their own impressions of the “unique climate” in which higher education currently finds itself, whether politically, socially, technologically, or otherwise.

In comments following these presentations, students noted the role that such research plays in the formation of larger public dialogue and opinion. But they were divided about the accuracy of the portrayals. Their responses ranged from frustrations with their own sense of student apathy to observations that public commentators were putting the Millennial generation into a “box” to make it easier to understand them. After the session, the students broke into smaller groups to discuss further this ‘unique climate’ in terms of the three cornerstones of the BTtoP mission: engaged learning within and outside of the classroom, civic development, and the mental health and well-being of students.

The conference continued with a panel discussion centered on barriers to campus communication among constituencies such as faculty, administrators, student affairs personnel, and students. The panel participants (including an assistant professor, a vice president of student affairs, and two students) discussed issues such as: high school students’ expectations of the higher education experience; stigmas about mental health issues; coping strategies to deal with stress and depression; and the often unknown boundaries that define student–faculty interactions regarding academics, mentoring, and personal issues. The session ended with a discussion of ways to improve communication and ensure that students are aware of resources available to them.

The students were receptive to each of the perspectives presented, and followed up in break-out sessions to discuss their own perspectives on the panel discussion. Post-conference surveys confirmed that the students were unanimously in favor of a conference joining them with faculty, staff, administrators, and student affairs personnel. These students are craving an open conversation that allows for real discussion and the development of solutions drawing on their experiences.

Students used the second day of the conference to utilize what they had learned to craft a campus-specific plan of action pertaining to one issue that significantly mattered to them. They were guided to think intentionally about the different resources available to them on campus, and their own agency in affecting a truly collaborative campus culture.

Finally, students were informed of their opportunity to participate in the BTtoP Project by applying for Student Programming Grants and applying to join the initial Student Leadership Coalition. This exciting new initiative will bring together approximately fifteen students who will serve as a student advisory board for BTtoP designed to address campus culture issues from a student perspective.

For more details about the Student Conference, please see the Web site www.aacu.org/bringing_theory/StudentConference2008.