The Value of Student Trustees to a Board

A Yale-bound student reflects on serving as a community college student trustee.

Student trustees are among the most critical, yet underused, resources on a community college campus. Although student trustees’ roles vary from college to college, the primary role of all student trustees is to bring the perspectives of students into the board room. While this may seem like a straightforward task, in my experience serving as the 2016-17 student trustee at Pasadena City College, serving as the voice of 30,000 students can be challenging.

Community colleges have diverse student bodies, attracting students of different ages, backgrounds, and passions. No two students are the same, meaning that each student has a unique set of circumstances and needs. Within my first week as student trustee, I realized that my understanding of the student body was limited to my perspective and did not fully encompass the range of students’ needs on campus. I decided to create a Student Trustee Ad-Hoc Committee comprised of 12 students representing different groups on campus. We held weekly meetings to discuss the issues being brought forward to the board, hosted on-campus events to gain student feedback, and expanded our understanding of what's really on students’ minds. Throughout my term, one issue remained consistent among most students: college affordability. In fact, the issues we found were all financial: food, transportation, and textbook costs dominated the list.

This comes as no surprise to those in the know. According to ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown, well over a third of community college students are on some type of student financial assistance. “A good percentage of our students do not have the financial resources to attend college without some kind of help,” he says.

Sharing Student Perspectives

Student trustees can use their positions to address college affordability effectively. According to Brown, the first step student trustees should take is to “ensure that students’ perspectives and needs are part of the equation when decisions are made institution-wide.”

Addressing a board of trustees can be intimidating to a student. But like any other trustee, your voice can make a difference. It’s important to recognize that your input matters and overcome the doubts you may have about speaking up. This doesn't mean that everything will always go your way, but you won’t know unless you take a chance. Participate in board discussions and don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. To help the board understand your perspective, consider inviting them to campus events, student meetings, and other environments where trustees can interact with the student body. The same applies to students, who can attend board meetings and share their stories during the time for public comment.

Student leaders cannot make progress if they don't communicate the needs of their peers. It is the student trustee’s responsibility to communicate student needs. By bringing information to the board, you are working with the system and exemplifying traits of an effective student trustee.

Working Within the System

Effective trusteeship cannot be done alone. Similar to any representative body, a community college operates under a system of shared governance. That system works to include the perspectives of professors, staff, administration, and, of course, students. As a student trustee, your voice is valued throughout this process, and you have the ability to make a change. This can be done by attending shared governance meetings and understanding the issues before they’re brought to the board. Talk to your board president about committee appointments and join the ones most relevant to your position. This way, you can impact campus policy behind the scenes and build relationships along the way. In addition to joining committees, find a mentor on the board who is willing to meet with you and guide you throughout the year. There is a significant learning curve associated with the position, and by the time student trustees become comfortable, their term is almost over. That’s why it’s important to reach out for support early on.

Brown agrees that the most productive way to use your position as a student trustee is to work with the system. “If you work within the system and you build allegiances and alliances, you can get more done,” he says.

In addition to working with the board, maintain a good relationship with the student government. The student government often has access to resources and funding that can help you in your role as student trustee. The student government also has a significant campus presence and serves as a far-reaching platform. Ultimately, both the student trustee and student government serve students and can have a stronger impact if they work together. Some potential avenues for collaboration include working with the student government to create a survey to gather student feedback, co-hosting campus-wide events, attending conferences, and building positive relationships with the campus community. Also, your student government will hold you accountable for representing students.

Reflection and Responsibilities

As you get more heavily involved on campus, it’s important to take a step back and reflect. Consider the impact you’ve made and what you sacrificed to get there. Although student trustees should be treated equally to other board members, it’s important to acknowledge their differences. On some campuses, student trustees are members of the population they represent. They are students at the college and often are affected by the issues they address. Student trustees must balance their responsibilities to the board with the nuances of being a student. This includes scheduling classes between meetings, reviewing the board agenda while studying for exams, and attending campus events during lunch breaks. If you notice your academics suffering as a result of your campus involvement, consider speaking to a campus counselor or your board mentor. You are a student first, then a trustee.

One of the responsibilities of any leader is to create a foundation that can continue to thrive after a term is over. Student trustees often only have one year on the board, which is not enough time to introduce and approve a new policy. Things work slowly and must go through multiple levels of discussion before they’re presented to the board. Even after the board approves an item, it is not implemented immediately. So the chances of seeing a direct product of your advocacy are slim. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the impact you are leaving and create a culture that holds the student trustee to a high standard. This way, important issues will not be overlooked after the end of your term.

Making a Difference

By learning how to best use your position, you can address the financial barriers affecting students. “We have students that are helping to support their family, are the head of household, or have children of their own,” Brown says. “A lot of students work at least part-time, if not full-time. That raises issues around their ability to pursue studies on a level that allows them to finish in a timely fashion.”

Many students don’t want to come forward and admit that they don’t eat every day, don’t have a place to live, or might be sleeping in their car. Students face food insecurity and homelessness, yet still show up to class every day ready to learn. Students go to work full-time, and still take night classes to receive their degrees. It is the role of the student trustee to bring these stories forward and advocate for increased support. The financial barriers cannot be completely alleviated within a one-year term, but steps can be made by the board to address these issues. And there are other ways to extend your advocacy beyond the confines of your own campus.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work on the College Promise Campaign in Washington, D.C., alongside a passionate group of people ready to make a difference. Our team understands the power that community colleges have to increase economic opportunity and to give students a second chance. The campaign is building broad public support for communities and states to make the first two years of community college as universal and free as high school has been for a century. This movement directly addresses the concerns brought to my attention by students on my own campus during my term as a student trustee: affordability. It’s almost unheard of in the United States for any student not to be able to afford high school. Why should two years of college be out of reach for anyone?

The movement driving Promise programs is now fully underway throughout the country, in small towns and counties, in cities and in rural regions. There are 200-plus Promise programs up and running, with new initiatives developing weekly. The programs span 44 states, including 23 statewide programs. This is happening now; the momentum for movement is increasing every day because making college affordable should be a priority and a reality. It shouldn’t matter if you’re a recent high school graduate, a first-generation student, a veteran, or a mother of three. If you want to go to college, cost should not stand in the way. I heard this message from my peers while I served on the Pasadena City College board, and it was exciting to serve alongside leaders who are addressing this challenge head on for all students across the country.

I will carry these experiences and the spirit of my transformative time at community college with me as I move ahead in life. My present adventure will be at Yale University, thanks in great part to what I learned in both the classrooms and the board room at a community college.

Nune Garapian is one of four community college transfer students who were accepted into Yale University. She is a rising junior, pursuing a degree in political science with plans to go into public service following her college career