Elevating student voices is part of our Washington State strategy

Woman at a podium in front of a slide presentation with audience members watching
Angela Jones, Director of the Washington State Initiative, takes to the stage during the Washington State Initiative Launch in Seattle, Washington, on June 14, 2023.
“Students understand the challenges that face them, and they hold the solutions they need.”
Jene Ray
The ZoNE Spokane

Our Washington State strategy and approach is grounded in listening, and a key group of people that we’re listening to are students across Washington. We’ve met with students in focus groups and on listening tours (here’s what we learned from seven students in Yakima). We spent time this summer listening to and learning from the Association of Washington Student Leaders, Washington Student Engagement Network, Act Six Scholars, and SEED Interns. And most recently, we invited students and several community based organizations who work closely with them to join us and share their perspectives at a convening we hosted with over 200 education leaders from across the state.

As we move forward with our Washington strategy, we are committed to listening to and elevating student voices so that communities can follow the lead of our young people’s aspirations. These students aren’t just our future leaders, they are already leading today. We believe in their leadership and their potential, and our goal is for every student to have access to the opportunities they need to design the future they want.

We asked students to share their perspectives on moving from high school to postsecondary and how prepared they feel (or felt) for the transition. Here’s what they told us.

Students want to pursue their postsecondary goals – for themselves and their families and communities.

We already know that nearly 90% of Washington’s high schoolers say they want to continue their education after high school. And yet, it always moves us to hear from students directly about what they want and why. The students we spoke to said they think education is an important lever to achieving their own success. They not only want an education for themselves but also for their families and their communities. These students are thinking ahead, they see the difference that an education makes, and they want to be able to support their future families and give back to their communities.

Students want personalized supports that match their needs and interests.

We also heard from students about the difference that a counselor or mentor can make in helping you map out your goals and create a pathway to achieve them. As Angelo, a high school student from Summit Olympus in Tacoma put it, “If you want to help a student make the transition from high school to college, you have to get to know them and the support and tools they need.” Yet they also noted that because of the high counselor to student ratios, counselors often can’t connect with students one-on-one in the ways they want and need to. We know from student stories and data that high-quality college and career advising can make a big impact. This is why a key component of our strategy is supporting high-quality advising in regions throughout Washington.

Two women holding microphones and sitting on chairs on a stage, one of them speaking to an audience
Panelist Marisol Johnson (left), a college student from Yakima, Washington and member of the Student Engagement Network, speaks as Donalda Brantley, a high school student from Spokane, looks on at the Washington State Initiative Launch in Seattle, Washington, on June 14, 2023.

Lastly, students shared the importance and value of having teachers that look like them. For college student Marisol, it wasn’t until she was enrolled at Heritage University that she had Native American and Latino professors that looked like her. Marisol shared, “It’s where I felt most welcomed and supported.” We asked community practitioners to share their experiences centering student voices. Here’s what they shared.

We believe that the power to change systems lies with students and their families and communities. And we don’t have to make assumptions about what students want, need or can do; students will tell us if we ask. That’s why we invited several community-based organizations from across Washington state to share their experiences working with students to create change and support their transition from high school to postsecondary. The organizations represented on our panel were:

Community leaders are working to help students see and use their power.

Community leaders from these organizations shared that students already have the power. What they need is adults who will give them a seat at the table, listen to what they have to say, and offer them meaningful opportunities to lead. Community leaders also shared several ways that organizations and the adults who lead them can show they trust students and see their power: providing them with the internships and scaffolded experiences that can lead to their career (not just supporting them to get to college); training students to become future leaders, understanding their power and building more power with one another; and letting students lead (not just co-create alongside organizations).

Four panelists holding microphones and sitting on chairs on a stage, one of them speaking to an audience
(From left to right) Facilitator Isabel Munoz-Colon, Senior Program Officer, Washington State Initiative (BMGF) leads a panel discussion including Marquise Dixon, Chief Partnerships Officer and incoming Chief Executive Officer of Degrees of Change, and Roxana Norouzi, Executive Director of One America, at the Washington State Initiative Launch in Seattle, Washington, on June 14, 2023.

Organizations, including ours, are at different stages of readiness to engage with students. Community leaders encouraged all of us to resist the urge to engage with students before you’re ready to act and able to implement what they share. They also encouraged organizations to cast a wide net when we start engaging with students because every student is unique and so are their needs. We do best when we bring as many diverse student voices to the table as we can.

Community leaders emphasized that student engagement requires a long-term vision.

Finally, community leaders cautioned that we cannot let student engagement become a box to check or stop seeing students as whole people. Supporting students from high school to postsecondary is more than a one time engagement or a one-size-fits-all approach. And when we are engaging with and providing resources to students, we also have an opportunity to consider the weight they may be holding to support their families as well. It requires commitment and investment to engage with students throughout their transition from high school to postsecondary and to continue learning about their needs and assessing what works and what doesn’t so that we can better support them and the students coming up behind them.

We are committed to finding ways to give students power and elevate student voice across our work in Washington state, and challenging our grantees and partners to do the same.

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