Understanding Student Perspectives

The pilot of the Shadow a Student Higher Ed Challenge will take place April 20-27, 2017.

Credit Patrick Beaudouin

In the University Innovation Fellows program, empathy is a big part of our daily practice. One of our core values is the emphasis on learning and understanding the experiences, challenges and joys of others so we can solve our world’s problems. Gaining empathy is essential for us as we work with Fellows and faculty colleagues to create change in higher education.

Last year, we learned about the Shadow a Student Challenge, run by School Retool, another program. We were inspired by this broad-reaching exercise in empathy that asked K-12 teachers, principals and administrators to shadow a student at their school for one day. The challenge is simple but impactful.

As educators, it’s important to continuously connect with the students at our schools. This is how we can adapt our classes, culture and spaces to better fit their needs. There’s no better way to practice empathy than by putting ourselves literally in the shoes of our students. More than 2,500 educators have done just that over the last two years as part of the K-12 challenge (check out their insights on Twitter at #shadowastudent).

We wondered, with all this enthusiasm for the K-12 challenge, what this challenge would look like in higher education. What would college and university leaders learn from spending a day in the life of a student at their institution?

Well, we’re going to find out together. We’re excited to announce the Shadow a Student Higher Ed Challenge, a small higher education pilot of the K-12 challenge in collaboration with the School Retool program. In true form, we’re testing out this idea to see what works, what doesn’t, and what our shadowers learn from their experiences.

For this pilot, we’re working with teams of administrators, faculty and staff from several institutions: Boise State University, Clemson University, Stanford University, Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología in Peru, University of Maryland, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

From April 20 (National High Five Day!) through April 27, we’re challenging leaders at these schools to pick a day, shadow one of their students for the day, and share their insights on Twitter at #shadowacollegestudent. We invite you to follow along, ask questions and share what this community is learning.

Read more about the challenge at

Why Student Voice Means More Than Choice

Image Credit: asylsun / Shutterstock

Back in high school, I always dreamt about the freedom that college life would bring. I would make my own decisions, 24/7. Sure enough, when I got to college, I was free—free to choose my major, how I spent my time and how I wanted to live my life.

It was as thrilling as I had imagined, yet I felt suppressed. I ran into the same problem from high school: I still didn’t have any say in the choices made about my education. These decisions about my learning happened without me.

Giving students more “choice” doesn’t guarantee a stronger student “voice.” This second piece is about having more authentic choice—choice about the things that matter.

Student voice is about having more authentic choice—choice about the things that matter.

Students like me have the illusion of voice and choice. We have “student leadership” that is really just a popularity contest. We run “student governments” that really just plan parties. We share our “student feedback” on sites like that really just indicate how easy it was to get the grade.

We’ve gone from high school, where we couldn’t even choose when we went to the bathroom, to college, where we’re expected to decide everything for ourselves, all the time. In some ways, the overabundance of choices exhausts our willpower, sapping our energy away from matters of greater significance.

Choice is everywhere, but we’re still disenfranchised when it comes to what matters most about our education and our lives. Here are a few examples:

  • The emphasis placed on grades creates an academic bubble: we’re judged by how we choose to live in that bubble, not by the decisions we make in the real-world.
  • We don’t have a say in what happens in the classroom: the professor has full control.
  • We don’t have any input in curricular matters: we’re told the graduation requirements are what they are.

This isn’t always the case, and it doesn’t have to be the norm. I’ve found pockets of hope and inspiration through several student-driven programs I have participated in that offer authentic agency around the things that matter.

  • Across the street from UVA’s famous Rotunda lies a student-run experiential education organization called HackCville. HackCville runs semester-long programs that include a student-designed curriculum, a personal alumni mentor in a field of your interest, hands-on projects and more. One program to emerge from HackCville is Rethink, an experiential “class” taught by and for students—check out the syllabus here.
  • Co-create UVA is an initiative that promotes student-faculty partnerships in teaching and learning. Co-create UVA offers paid consulting for trained students to use their experience as students to advise faculty on how to improve their teaching. For example, Co-create UVA hosted a student-faculty luncheon at UVA’s New Faculty Orientation, in which new faculty members directly conversed with UVA students about their experience at UVA to better understand the student perspective.
  • Student-initiated innovation classes and workshops are popping up across the country through the national network of University Innovation Fellows. Student leaders in this program have developed “pop-up classes” to test out new ways of teaching entrepreneurship and innovation. University Innovation Fellows at James Madison University have hosted pop-up classes on glass blowing, 3D printing, welding and more.

These examples place students at the center of their own learning and at the helm of their own life. That’s what I see as the future of higher education.

KeatonWadzinksiKeaton Wadzinski (@Kwadzki) is a third year at the University of Virginia studying Youth and Social Innovation with a minor in Social Entrepreneurship.

He became University Innovation Fellow in the fall of 2015.

Change Agents Activated

Students take the lead in the evolution of higher education at the University Innovation Fellows 2015 Annual Meetup. Originally posted via Epicenter

by Laurie Moore

At 8:00 pm on Saturday, February 21, the second day of the University Innovation Fellows 2015 Annual Meetup was drawing to a close. Nearly 160 Fellows from across the U.S. had just participated in a 12-hour day of activities at Stanford University, including a one-hour movement workshop, a self-guided tour of campus to discover innovation spaces, and a four-hour, five-session circuit of experiential activities.

They should have been tired.

Instead, they sang karaoke together. They danced. They played basketball outside in the warm (to the East Coasters) evening air. They made s’mores around a fire pit and told their favorite stories from the day. They took selfies and gathered in small groups to learn more about one another and their schools. When the buses came at 9:30 pm to take the students back to their hotels, they demanded one final karaoke song, and then another.

It was hard to believe that these University Innovation Fellows met for the first time as a community only 48 hours earlier.

The University Innovation Fellows program, run by Epicenter, offers training and support for students to become change agents at their schools. Through the training and ongoing support, Fellows learn to navigate their campus landscapes and create offerings that hone peers’ entrepreneurial mindsets and instill creative confidence.

Fellows on the last day of the Annual Meetup at Stanford's

Fellows on the last day of the Annual Meetup at Stanford’s

While many Fellows had met online during their intense 6-week video-conference-based training, the Annual Meetup allowed them to connect in person for the first time. Together, they had the opportunity to share experiences and insights from their schools, collaborate on new strategies for change in education, understand their role in this national movement, and learn from leaders in higher education and industry.

The Fellows at the 2015 Meetup were from two cohorts trained in Fall 2014 and Spring 2015. Also in attendance were 12 of the Fellows’ faculty sponsors, who who were invited to attend and participate alongside students as partners in achieving institutional change.

The Meetup was organized by the University Innovation Fellows program staff at Epicenter: Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, Humera Fasihuddin, Katie Dzugan and Laurie Moore. Eight Fellows assisted with the design and facilitation of the event and hosted several sessions: Atin Mittra, Meenu Singh and Valerie Sherry from the University of Maryland, College Park; Greg Wilson from the University of Georgia; Ryan Phillips from the University of Oklahoma; Bre Przestrzelski from Clemson University; Ben Riddle from Furman University; and new Fellow Bradley Dice from William Jewell College.


Rhythm of a Movement






The event spanned three days. The first day at Google was hosted by Frederik Pferdt, head of Innovation and Creativity Programs at Google. Activities included an inside look into Google X with Amanda Kelly, a design challenge in teams, a panel discussion with representatives from People Development at Google, a spaces tour, and a talk on Google for Entrepreneurs with Daniel Navarro.

The second and third days of the Meetup took place at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design ( Sessions on Saturday included a leadership through movement session with Stanford Dance and Performance Arts instructor Aleta Hayes, an exploration of Stanford innovation spaces, a talk with Olga Dotter from Citrix on the intersection of lean startup and design thinking, a circuit of five experiential activities, and a workshop to help students create and facilitate similar activities at their schools.

Sunday activities included a panel with educators and students on new models of education, examples of campus initiatives from current Fellows, and a workshop on how students can accelerate change in higher education. Several special guests stopped by the meetup, including Stanford alumnus and violinist Kai Kight and author and entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki.

Surprise guest: Kai Kight

Surprise guest: Kai Kight

At the end of the event, Fellows shared their insights from the event in the form of sticky note “bumper stickers” which they placed on a life-size, hand-painted University Innovation Fellows Volkswagen van. Examples included “Never give up,” “Think, Do, Fail, Learn,” “Innovation or Bust,” and “Be the change.”

After the three-day event ended, Fellows returned to their campuses. Their charge: to be the change they want to see in higher education.

Fellows Bus after creating bumper stickers.

Fellows Bus after creating bumper stickers.

More 2015 Annual Meetup materials and articles:

Talking With America’s Future: Removing Barriers, by Shawn Drury

Event photo gallery:

Meet the changemakers: map of student attendees at the University Innovation Fellows Annual Meetup 2015: