If you want to understand the experiences of students on campus, simply ask; this is the underlying premise of Donna Knifong’s Listening to Students project. This post offers an overview of an innovative project focused on elevating the student voice to help campuses better understand and serve diverse student populations.
As a faculty member in communications studies, Knifong spent years listening to the way her students shared their experiences on campus through the lens of their self-identified demographic characteristics: “From students with disabilities to student parents, I was struck about how powerful students were in relaying their stories.…and I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who could benefit from what all these students had to say.”
The project was first launched at a community college, and Knifong continued the work at her current four-year institution, California State University, Sacramento. Listening to Students begins with an anonymous, voluntary survey to students at an institution, who are asked to share whatever demographic information they feel characterizes their perspective. Students are then asked to share information related to what it’s like to be a students with their previously-identified perspective and some of their positive and less positive experiences at the institution. Knifong has found that answers to these types of questions can range from one word, one sentence, to a few pages, with some submissions even accompanied with drawings. “I don’t think I realized just how much [the students] had to say and how compellingly they could say it,” says Knifong.
Asking about student experiences at an institution may help affirm the value of campus services and supports and spotlight areas in need additional attention. Samples of student responses are below:
“Going to work full time and school doesn’t always go smoothly in regards to time conflicts/scheduling. Maybe it’s just because I transferred in on a late date but it doesn’t seem very work friendly.” —22 y.o., Transfer student, male, straight, born to refugee parents
“Being a first generation college student may be challenging at times. I’m the youngest out of 6, left my home at the age of 18…. It’s challenging because it’s hard for me to communicate with my family about college life because they don’t understand it. You also can’t ask them for help because they didn’t pursue higher education. That is why the available resources are extremely helpful for students like me.” —first-generation, Hispanic, 18 years old
[I don’t like] The lack of knowledge about diversity. Cultural sensitivity often means cultural avoidance. In an academic institution is the best place to facilitate meaningful conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation. The opportunity is often lost.” —black female, dyslexic, returning to college
Knifong categorized responses by types of student groups, such as new students, transfer students, student veterans, LGBTQIA students, undocumented students, racially and ethnically minoritized students, and many more. Each student-specific category includes facts and figures about the specific student population on campus, tailored suggestions for faculty and staff, and a list of relevant resources and student services. Knifong shared the work section by section with the campus on a weekly basis, and has since been used to inform faculty and staff workshops, committee reform efforts, student course assignments, and institutional reports.
The adaptability of the project speaks to its potential for widespread implementation across a variety of colleges and universities. The results of the survey are available on CSU Sacramento’s Student Academic Success and Educational Equity Programs webpage, along with further information about the project, the project methodology, and the templates used. Listening to Students offers what a California community colleges research group calls a “blueprint for inspiration,” in that the project serves as a framework for institutions looking to amplify student voices in the campus community.
Listening to Students can serve as a valuable resource for institutions looking to better understand their diverse student population’s needs and perspectives. Additionally, the project can help increase awareness of services and resources available across a campus. The project helps bridge the informational gap between academic affairs and student affairs by including campus resources specific to certain demographic groups. Awareness of the full breadth of services available on campus can enable faculty and staff to more seamlessly connect students to the right resources.
The practice of routinely asking students to share their thoughts and feelings about their experiences helps foster a campus culture where student voices matter and diversity is valued. If you are interested in learning more about Listening to Students, email Donna Knifong at [email protected].