Personal Statements 2016: Escaping the Token Student Experience

Personal Statements 2016: Escaping the Token Student Experience


Editor’s Note: ‘Tis the trendy season for trends, to reflect on 2015 and to make bold predictions about what next year may hold. This year, we asked thought leaders to share their outlooks on education, but with a twist. They have to frame their thoughts as a response to some of the finest college application essay prompts—yes, the very same ones that high school seniors are feverishly working on now!

Here’s what Andrew Rikard, a junior at Davidson College, had to say.

Writing prompt: University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, "The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions." We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer. (University of Chicago)

Over the past year, I’ve taken my first halting steps into the Higher Education conversation. As a student, I’m either a token of “the student experience” or an audience member at a gathering run by educators for educators. In their conversations about digital tech, progressive pedagogy, and the inevitable lack of funding, one educator will ask another, “How might we reimagine Higher Education in the digital age?”

We’re asking this question with the wrong group of people present. I can’t help but imagine what the answer would look like if the mainstream student body, given power over the national conversation, joined with these progressive pedagogues to reimagine Higher Education. Gathering together as educators is potentially ignoring the most involved group of stakeholders. Reflecting on this year, we, the students, are asking who has the power to reimagine higher education.

In my experience, there seem to be two generalizable conversations in higher education. On the one hand, you have the mainstream, student-driven conversation around issues of identity, privilege, and social justice: racial, sexual, economic, environmental, etc. It is primarily critical and reactionary. On the other hand, you have the more niche, faculty-driven conversations around issues of progressive or regressive pedagogy, active/passive educating and digital teaching/learning. Students protest cultural spaces. Educators reimagine intellectual spaces.

As we students propose new structures for cultural spaces, we need to be present for the recreation of these intellectual spaces.

Including students in the conversation challenges the “we” in “How might we reimagine Higher Education in the digital age?” It repositions the power and responsibility to solve these problems. And, fittingly, it is a pedagogical act. It actively puts students in charge of their education, encouraging an empowered, skeptical, democratic populace. Finally, it empowers the revolutionary to become the reformer. How might this vision materialize? It starts with creating a community of students dedicated to inter-institutional conversation, research and community building. Our seat at the table will come when we unify.

Students need both mainstream outlets and dedicated physical spaces to talk about teaching and learning on a national scale, which brings us back to the initial question, “How might we reimagine Higher Education in the digital age?” We must encourage students to ask that question in solidarity with each other and with educators. We must encourage the token student voices to expand their protest, claiming a seat at the tables that structure their education. Let’s subvert some questions and build something together this next year.

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