What does it mean for us to be student-centered in our work at Ithaka S+R?

In our collaborative research initiative on student success and community college libraries, the Community College Libraries & Academic Support for Student Success (CCLASSS) project, being student-centered means that we have positioned student voices as not only valuable but essential to our work. While our ultimate aim for the CCLASSS project is to design new library and other academic support services, we very deliberately began our project by interviewing students on what success means to them, the challenges they are facing in achieving their goals, and the support they need to overcome these challenges. We chose this approach because we hypothesized that student definitions of success might deviate from how many institutions have historically defined “student success.” And, to the extent that student perceptions did differ from institutional definitions, we wanted these perceptions to take center stage in our work.

What does it mean for our partner organizations to be student-centered in their actions?

Centering students means that while the CCLASSS project is library-led and institutionally grounded, it is not library-centric nor institutionally driven. We interviewed and surveyed students and listened closely to how they described their needs and additional desired supports. As our seven partner colleges have begun to implement some new services designed to support students, they are now thinking beyond the walls of their libraries to partner and share data with other service areas across student and academic affairs to ultimately benefit their students.

What does it mean to be student-centered within a conference setting?

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend and present with my colleagues on the CCLASSS project at the DREAM 2019 conference hosted by Achieving the Dream. Achieving the Dream is a national, nonprofit organization focused on championing evidence-based institutional improvements by supporting a network of community colleges in sharing knowledge, solutions, practices, and policies. The conference organizers did a brilliant job not only centering the conference around students by highlighting issues important to students but by allowing attendees to hear directly from students themselves throughout the conference.

Before each plenary keynote session, we heard from students in the DREAM Student Scholars program, which provides student engagement and professional development opportunities for students from Achieving the Dream Network institutions. They kicked off each session by explaining where they were “from” — “from the ‘you can’t, but I did” and “from a full head of hair but now I stand here bald; from a bout with uterine cancer that once had me stalled” and “from poverty to advocacy; from insignificance to leadership.” This powerful framing was incredibly effective in reminding attendees of the important mission shared by so many community colleges.

Sessions at DREAM 2019 centered around issues including hunger and food insecurity and the importance of creating a culture of care for students. During one of the plenary sessions on supporting the basic needs of students, panelists stressed the need to meet student needs beyond the classroom. As interviews with students in the CCLASSS project have indicated, the most significant challenges students are facing — balancing work and school, finances, childcare arrangements, language and cultural barriers, transportation to and from the college — are often from beyond the classroom but still are fundamentally academic issues. Speakers at DREAM 2019 made sure to identify systemic issues as driven by structures and not individual college students. As one of the speakers in the opening keynote so clearly stated, it shouldn’t take heroism to succeed in college.

The DREAM 2019 conference organizers clearly understand the value of foregrounding student experiences and reminding attendees that programs and initiatives must be centered around serving students. As we continue our work in developing action-oriented research towards helping community colleges — and the higher education sector more broadly — to meet student needs, we will remain dedicated to the same approach.