Reinventing the Student Experience

Bringing Student Self-Governance to Education

Participant Jacob Hardin gives feedback on responses to a design prompt.

What is the Student Experience?

On October 10th, ReinventED sent out anonymous invitations to prominent student leaders promising food and a round-table discussion. The anonymous invitation was a major grab: on October 16th, ten individuals met to make the event a reality.

Attendees were in the driver’s seat during the event, coming up with pop-up conversations and discussing in small groups about everything from the implementation of student-run education programs at the University to the ethics of allowing companies to teach workshops on campus. Brains were stormed. What is the student experience, and how do we improve it?

(Left) Alex and Andy write potential pop-up conversation questions on the whiteboard. (Right) Abby, Lexi, Zaakir, and Melissa engage in a pop-up conversation.

UVA and Student Self Governance

UVA has a long and storied history with student self-governance. Organizations like Honor and the University Judicial Committee are completely run by student-elected students, and the Student Council interacts directly with the Board of Visitors to influence the future direction of the University.

But where’s the self-governance in education? ReinventED Lab founder Keaton Wadzinski puts it best:

“We’re curious about what it looks like to take that same ideal and principle of student agency and student autonomy and apply that to curriculum and the academic sphere.”

So we gathered the people most likely to make it happen.

Student Leaders

It’s not hard to spot student-led education efforts around Grounds. The Cavalier Education Program (CavEd), run primarily by the Student Council’s Academic Affairs committee, selects undergraduate students to teach self-designed courses offered in SIS. HackCville offers student-led extracurricular classes on everything from data science to media production. Flash Seminars engage students with professors outside of the classroom curriculum.

Brianne Nueslein and Megan Dister teach a CavEd service-learning class on food justice in Charlottesville. The project started as part of a Global Sustainability class.

Brianne Nueslein and Megan Dister, co-founders of CavEd class “Development through Revolution: Exploring the Local Food Movement of Charlottesville.”

“It did not go very well,” Megan said. “So I thought it would be cool if Brianne and I could create a class around that was effective in engaging, talking about what food justice is, and what it looks like on the ground.”

The resulting class, “Development through Revolution: Exploring the Local Food Movement of Charlottesville,” connects students to a West Haven community through nonprofit organization Growing for Change.

Connor Graham runs Flash Seminars with c0-chair Lexi Schubert. He describes the organization as pop-up seminars that engage the University community in Jefferson’s vision of “learning everywhere, in every way.” The organization recently began holding student-run seminars. “[They’ve] been a little more interesting, because then faculty…attend those, as peers,” Connor said.

Connor Graham and Lexi Schubert, Co-Chairs of Flash Seminars

The student-lead seminars are connecting professor to student. “Professors are liking that they can learn through it, and that they can talk to students about these fun things,” Connor said. “It’s becoming a much more interconnected society.”

Hannah Schmidt is a Curry student and president of Student Virginia Education Association, an organization that she says boils down to “teachers club.”

SVEA facilitates out-of-classroom career development, education discussion, and communication among peers. “I just thought that … a really valuable part of becoming a teacher is communicating with your peers,” Hannah said. Seeing alumni in her position inspired Hannah to “get everybody together outside of the classroom.”

Hannah Schmidt, president of SVEA.

What’s the current experience?

A recurring theme across participants was that the student experience at UVA has a lot of room for improvement.

An off-grounds hub for innovation, HackCville is in the capable hands of director Andy Page. Characterizing his undergraduate academic career as “not the best” and the mysterious emails as “weird”, Andy is passionate about improving the current University academic experience.

After attempting to create his own major and subsequently being repeatedly rejected, Andy wants to improve the current academic situation so “nobody else has to deal with that.”

(Left) Andy Page, director of HackCville. (Right) Zaakir Tameez, member of StudCo Legislative Affairs Committee.

Zaakir Tameez, a member of Student Council’s Legislative Affairs Committee, feels that the “student experience at UVA can often be a struggle.”

“You show up to class and there’s 500 people, you don’t know the professor, you don’t really know what’s going on, and we need more ways to get students to feel more comfortable and to really learn at this university.”

What’s Next?

How do we address the needs and frustrations that the group discussed? The participants pitched ideas — many ideas.

The program manger of Co-create UVA, Jacob Hardin, considers changing the student experience for the better “an incredible goal.”

Co-create UVA is a collaborative effort between student-led ReinventED Lab and the Center for Teaching Excellence to improve courses and curricula.

Jacob Hardin, program manager of Co-Create UVa

Jacob was initially cynical about student-led change. “I thought that change in education could only come at a political level, Board of Visitors financial level,” he said. “But then I found out the best change [happens] in small groups.”

Zaakir mentioned wanting to move forward with an idea to suggest related courses on SIS, UVA’s course registration software, when choosing browsing class selections.

Participants indicated on a survey that the vast majority of them wanted to continue this kind of spit-ball get-together of student education leaders and innovators.

There is a vast number of opportunities moving forward— workshops, greater cognizance of student self-governance in academics, more sweeping projects that bring together different academic spheres of the university. We can now only wait with bated breath for these student leaders take those opportunities and build the future of higher education here at UVA.