Student Voices for Higher Education and Democracy

By: UMBC Magazine Editor
Aug 3, 2018

(Group of students and staff pose at CLDE conference)
Each June, faculty, staff, and students from across the U.S. gather to discuss higher education’s work preparing students to engage in civic life. Below are reflections from five students who participated in this year’s Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Meeting as members of UMBC’s delegation. The meeting took place in Anaheim, California, from June 6-9, 2018.

Markya D. Reed ’18, Psychology, immediate past Executive Vice President, UMBC Student Government Association

CLDE has helped me recognize the power of the student voice, especially as it pertains to higher education.

The student perspective is unique. If you are a student, higher education is focused on you. The entire existence of this institution (should) revolve around your education, your success, and your development. If an institution is based on your very existence, you (should) have power in that situation. You (should) have the power to challenge the status quo, the power to tackle unhealthy power dynamics, to question tradition, to propose new and exciting ideas, and to voice your opinion regarding how you are experiencing your education. CLDE is beginning to allow students to do just that. This makes for more fruitful discussion, yes, but more importantly it re-enforces the idea of community, ACTUAL community. If we are going to call ourselves a community and function as one, each part of it needs to have a say. All of our voices need to be taken into account and valued. I see that play out in some pockets of campus, but not enough of them. This is precisely the reason I’ve taken an interest in higher education as a career. How can we further communicate the value of student voices? How can we uplift those voices?

Tess McRae ’21, English, immediate past Election Board Member, UMBC Student Government Association

CLDE 2018 was my first foray into the world of civics and democracy. Admittedly, this experience was somewhat overwhelming for me, and the decidedly performative presence of students at the conference only deepened my general sense of displacement. That being said, I left CLDE feeling energized by both my peers from UMBC and the other students I met from schools around the nation to help make the civic landscape on our campus more accessible and inclusive. I now understand the vitality of genuine student inclusion in the process of moving towards a more democratic future, and I believe the experience I had at this conference will help me to shape my own time at UMBC as I find new ways to share and demonstrate the lessons I learned with other students.


Julia Arbutus ’20, English, Editor-in-Chief, The Retriever

This past June, a group of UMBC students attended the 2018 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement conference in Anaheim, California. I was honored to be a part of this delegation, which was composed mostly of students active within our Student Government Association. As Editor-in-Chief of The Retriever, I was a bit unsure why David, UMBC’s campus coordinator for the American Democracy Project and my former professor, originally invited me to attend this conference – it seemed like it reached student political platforms a bit more than student journalism. Nevertheless, I was positive I would find other students who wrote for their own university paper. However, attending the conference made me realize how underrepresented student journalists – and student activists on the whole – are within academic spaces set aside specifically for democratic engagement. This was why David invited me to attend, to learn to use my own platform with The Retriever to foster (and also seek out and report on) democratic happenings throughout our campus. The role of a newspaper within a thriving democracy is to responsibly educate the public on current events and to encourage – and sometimes facilitate – the public to engage in democracy with each other. I am excited and extremely fortunate to be a part of a platform on campus that can influence so many people in such a positive way, and I intend to bring what I have learned about civic engagement through journalism to further enhance and empower our UMBC campus community.

Scott Buchan ’20, Political Science, Finance Board Representative, UMBC Student Government Association

I went into CLDE 2018 fully expecting that this conference would be a faculty meeting students would be infiltrating. My goal was to connect with other students and gain knowledge from my peers rather than from faculty who I knew wouldn’t take me seriously, and because of this mindset, CLDE 2018 was a wonderful experience for me. I spent my time talking to students and getting to know them better, learning about their experiences, and reflecting on this information. I was able to meet Anna Williams, Israel Alford, and Madelyn Genao from Rutgers University and spent the vast majority of my time with them having many in-depth political conversations about issues such as free speech and immigration. I meet with Oballa Oballa from Riverland Community College and had a meaningful conversation talking about how to increase engagement in student government. I meet with LeAnn Whitley from Georgia College and learned about an amazing program to bring former congresspeople to campus. My take away from CLDE is hope for our democracy. I was taken aback by how extremely well educated and active all of these people are. Everyone I had the pleasure of talking to was doing amazing things in their schools and communities and it inspired me to do the same at UMBC.

Brandon Liu ’19, Biology and Visual Arts, Senator, UMBC Student Government Association; President, Sign of Life

Before the CLDE meeting, I had made two assumptions without realizing it. One was that I would experience the same free-flowing, non-hierarchical communication I had come to expect through my experiences as a member of UMBC’s student government and as a representative on campus shared governance committees. The other was that I would need to monitor my own tendency to over-participate and inadvertently crowd out other voices. 

My actual experience of the CLDE meeting deviated from both assumptions. I was surprised to find that, in a meeting that was centered on civic engagement specifically from students, most sessions were in a lecture format, with the presenters speaking at the front and the audience silent and listening. Very few times did I see the knowledge and prior experiences of the attendees brought into a session, other than as tools for audience engagement (i.e., where are we from//who has experienced this at their institutions?). That teacher-centered session format implies that the lecturers are the only individuals in the room with knowledge worth sharing: that we participants are there only to learn from them, and they are there to teach to us. I could have spoken up and tried to create space for more of us to share (especially students), but I was inhibited by my hesitation to crowd out other voices. I realize now that I need to tailor my participation to the context: giving space to others who have knowledge to share, but also making space when they don’t recognize that I have knowledge as well.
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