Designing for Transformative Learning in Covid and Beyond through Student Partnerships

In this interview, Dr. Jessica Riddell (Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence at Bishop’s University) is in conversation with Sufia Langevin (Joan Stadelman Student Success Fellow at Bishop’s University). They discuss how working with students as partners helps transform not just students but faculty, staff, and institutions through messy, process-driven and co-designed experiences.

April 2021

Jessica Riddell: It is a delight to be joined by Sufia Langevin today at the end of the academic semester. My name is Jessica Riddell and I’m the Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence at Bishop’s; and one of the best parts of my role is to work with students as partners and collaborators and co-designers. And, of course, one of the most inspiring humans is Sufia, who has taken on this role of Stadelman Fellow, in the inaugural role, and shaped this program into something incredibly meaningful that has a lasting impact on future cohorts of students. Sophia, can you introduce yourself and just tell us a little bit about you as a student and as a human?

Sufia Langevin: Well, thank you! I’m Sufia, I’m in my second year now at Bishop’s, I’m studying secondary education and social studies. As you said, I am lucky enough to have the Stadelman Fellowship for Student Success. I’m also involved in a bunch of other ways with the school: with our EDI taskforce, I’m one of the co-chairs, I also served as Equity Rep. of the SRC this year, and I was recently elected VP academic for the next year.

Jessica Riddell: So just hearing all of those things makes me tired! The demands of a full-time student are then amplified by your work as an advocate and a champion, as an elected representative for students, with your work also to give voices to otherwise marginalized or underrepresented groups: that is a tremendous amount of work. How do you juggle all of those things? How do you manage the balance?

Sufia Langevin: I think it really comes with the way that I frame how much time that I have, and so I used to look at it as, OK: I have 24 hours, what can I get done with 24 hours? But I ended up switching that to looking at how many hours I have in a week and then how can I best use the hours in a week because it’s a bigger number, so it feels easier to manage, but also because you can’t do every single thing in one day. So I really try to… if I have to set aside one day that it’s like, OK this day I’m working on just SRC, and on this day I’m working on just classes, I can do that when I give myself the freedom and understanding that I have more time than I think I do in a single day, you know?

Jessica Riddell: And I also love that you have the high impact time because you understand alignment. You have a guiding vision and foundational principles, and so all of the things that you do in many ways work towards that alignment; while your many roles might seem different on paper, there are convergences based on some fundamental beliefs and principles about student voices and students as partners.

So maybe that’s a great segue for us to talk a little bit about the Stadelman Fellowship and then what we’ve learned working together in students as partners. A really quick overview of the Stadelman Fellowship is that it started with the endowment of a fellowship in 2019 from Joan Stadelman, who wanted to support student success and understood deep and meaningful  institutional change needed to be a collaboration between students and faculty across the institutions. We broadly defined the mandate as a fellowship that provided rich incubators for lessons and for growth, not just for students, but all partners in the journey of student success and leadership.

And so what we did was, with Sufia as a key design partner, created a kind of tripod structure where Katie Bibbs, who is a student success coordinator through the Student Affairs Office, and myself as a faculty member and Sufia as a student leader and advocate, worked together in a three-way design structure to vision out what we could do to instill longer-term, generative culture change. We have a lot of takeaways and experiences because we started loosely and started to just get those design principles clarified for ourselves in order to then figure out how we navigate the institutional structures themselves.

So Sufia, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your experience in this novel approach to student leadership, where instead of being assigned to project a reporting to a boss or a faculty member, you were embedded in the design and implementation assessment of the work that you’ve done over the last 18 months?

Sufia Langevin: It was definitely very new to me at first. It was like a new structure that I had never encountered before. I was very used to just being told what to do and then doing it, so in the beginning I felt like, why someone would just tell me what to do. But as soon as I really got into the flow of how I can actually participate in the creation of it, that was really empowering. I think that being able to have my own ideas and bring something to the table as an equal partner really helped me to have my confidence to actually complete the project that I was working on, and I also had a lot more ownership over the work that I was doing. It’s really helped me to feel confident in every area that I work in because I have this support and I feel empowered in the work that I do. And instead of just taking a box and saying, OK, task complete, you know?

Jessica Riddell: And that was one of our big design principles, right? Choose something transformative, not just for you but for us in our thinking about the role of students as key collaborators and co-designers. The fellowship has given us a chance for us all to do some critical reflection and to see the value of this approach as we think about embedding it in and across our campuses more intentionally.

You’ve spoken with us a lot about the development of critical reflection and the importance of that reflective practice in your work as a student leader. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that as a key element in our work, but also in your work as a as a student leader?

Sufia Langevin: Yeah, absolutely. I have come to find critical reflection as the most important tool in my toolbox as a student leader. When I first started doing it, I felt like, OK, this is just weird journaling, like, I’m just writing things down and it felt really unnatural at first, but as I continued doing it and as I practiced it everyday, I found that I was able to really dive deeper into my own thoughts, in my own perceptions of situations, and really unravel, like, untangle situations and really be able to find the root causes of issues or the reason that I was having a conflict in a certain situation, and it’s actually been the most important thing to me to stay as a student leader.

A couple of months ago I went through a very difficult time with my involvements. As you know, I’m involved in a lot of different areas and they’re pretty heavy things. Like EDI, equity, diversity and inclusion on different levels of the University, was a difficult position for me to be in as a student and also just as a minority person. It had gotten to a point where I was really considering stepping down from all of my involvements and just saying, like, I would like to just be a student that can focus on classes, you know, just give me my degree, but that’s never been how I wanted my university experience to be. I never wanted to just get a degree and so it really took a lot of critical reflection for me at that point, where I was thinking, OK, why am I feeling this way? Why is this something that I don’t want but feels so appealing right now?

The support system that I have at the school and I really came to find that I was just very scared and that was the real issue. I was scared of having so many positions and whether or not I was on the right path because I had seen other student leaders who had done similar work and I was worried about how stressful it had been for them, the impact that it had on them and whether or not I was doing the right thing, and it became like this little crisis for me.

But in the end, through the critical reflection and finding my own voice and my reasons for doing what I’m doing, I was grounded in my values and I found like, OK, the reason that I have taken all of this on is because I believe it’s important and because I feel like I have a responsibility towards this. And I was renewed in my empowerment with my roles. It was at that point that I decided to run for VP Academic and I did end up winning that election and I feel that I’m now so much more equipped to handle any conflict that I have within myself or when other people try to challenge the work that I do. I am grounded now and I’m able to say like, OK, I know my reasons for doing this. I know that I can justify it to myself and to others, and I really just… I feel so much more empowered in my roles.

Jessica Riddell: thank you so much, Sufia. I think that one of the things that I have learned alongside you is the importance of making the messiness visible, and the difficulty of navigating any kind of change within an institutional structure, and your bravery to be able to say, this is messy and difficult, and I’m scared, and I also need to trust the process and the thought partners. This is as a really essential learning moment for all of us, as we engage as change agents, and it resonates with some of the research that we’ve done around students as partners.

One of the most influential scholars on students as partners is called Mick Healey. He studies this kind of process and he says “partnership is a process of engagement, uniquely foregrounding qualities that put reciprocal learning at the heart of the relationship, such as trust, risk, interdependence, and agency, in its difference to other, perhaps more traditional forms of learning and working in the academy. Partnership raises awareness of implicit assumptions, encourages critical reflection, and opens up new ways of thinking and learning and working in contemporary higher education.” I feel like we’re doing that kind of work of risk and that trust and the messiness of working inter-dependently and through these collaborative spaces.

If you were to give some recommendations for people who wanted to dip their toes into this kind of work, which is, as Mick Healey points out, quite different to the traditional forms of the academy, what are some of the recommendations that you would give to faculty and students and academic staff who would like to engage in this difficult but transformative work?

Sufia Langevin: I would say first and foremost, lean into the messiness, because that’s really where you’re doing the best learning, where you make mistakes, that’s when you learn your lesson. When you’re trying to figure it out together and really to have open dialogue with one another, don’t keep it to yourself and wonder whether or not everyone is going to understand what you’re thinking. Really be open about your experiences and your perceptions and your opinions and your thoughts, and just speak everything and everyone will be able to come to an understanding.

I would also say that in the beginning it might feel unnatural at first, if it’s not something that you’re used to. I know, for me, it felt really weird being in this situation and coming as… I bring something to the table and having a perspective that was valued. I was very used to being, like, I’m a student and I just take notes so it felt unnatural at first, but it became more natural than anything. The more that I trusted the process and the more that I leaned into it. And at this point it’s something that I bring to everywhere that I work. So I would really say, just because it feels weird at first, don’t give up on it and really lean into that and have an open mind.

Jessica Riddell: I love that advice and I think that that’s really important to mark, not just the discomfort from the student perspective, but also to see the discomfort from faculty and academic staff who also are used to very different kinds of paradigms, hierarchies and power dynamics. So being mindful of those power dynamics and being mindful of how we’ve been taught to do things, and then attuned to the discomfort necessary to shift when we try something different, I think is really important. You and I have had some conversations about faculty who are trained to be experts and have mastery of their particular field; students as partners is somewhat disruptive to their training and learning because it offers a different kind of expertise or mastery.

When we went to go to the literature to find some pathways and guides, we found a really cool thinker and scholar on the dynamics of expertise: “…the term ‘expert’ is reserved for faculty, when, in fact, students are experts in one very critical area: the experience of learning. It is surprisingly easy to overlook what seems to be an obvious connection: no one understands the student experience better than the students, themselves.” (Pallant, 2011, p. 519).[1]

And another group of thinkers and scholars on students as partners, Catherine Bovill, Peter Felten and Alison Cook-Sather say: “students are neither disciplinary nor pedagogical experts, rather their experience and expertise typically is in being a student, something that many faculty have not been for many years.” I found that those two quotations were really helpful in guiding and framing the ways in which we understand students as partners: we’re not expecting students to be masters of content or pedagogy, but rather value expertise in multiple ways to build in student voices and empowerment. I love that word that you continue to use, “empowerment” to understand that your lived experience in the classroom and beyond is an essential piece of the puzzle if we’re going to build more inclusive systems in higher education.

I wonder if you’ve got anything that you’d like to share about coming up against this sort of discomfort of student as expert, and ways to navigate that?

Sufia Langevin: That’s a good question. I think that it’s important to not immediately turn away from the discomfort because I did a few times, where I’d come up against the discomfort and then I would retreat, “I don’t know, just tell me what to do”, and somebody else just told me what I should be doing. I did that a few times until I really didn’t feel good about that. That didn’t make me feel confident. It didn’t make me feel like I was doing my best work, so the next time that I encountered that discomfort, I really stood up and said, OK, why am I uncomfortable? And it was really because I was learning something, and I should have recognized that discomfort as a good thing because it shows that I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone, really encountering new experiences, and that’s the best place to do the learning, so I’d say, don’t shy away from it. It will be weird at first. It will definitely… you might step away at first, but if you really face that discomfort hat on and say, what can I learn from this? What can I take away from this and how is this making me a better leader, a better student leader or a better advocate? Then absolutely, like, take whatever lessons you can and bring that forward with you, but there’s never going to be a step where you stop experiencing that. Discover it.

I always think it’s like, OK, I’m uncomfortable now, but I won’t be after I’ve learned the lesson, and that’s forever. And it’s like, well, OK, you’ve encountered one obstacle, you’ve overcome it and now there’s another, so if you… once you become comfortable with that discomfort, you’re able to overcome so much more and learn so much more and take those lessons with you as you encounter more and more.

Jessica Riddell: I love that the discomfort never stops and it never ends up if you’re doing it right. If you’re doing the kind of work that Parker Palmer, who’s my favorite Quaker philosopher, says, “there are broken-hearted people, those who are broken open and those who are broken apart,”. You’ve just given us a roadmap to be broken open, broken open to that discomfort, and understanding that that is a key part of transforming, of metamorphosis? Of going from Caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly. It’s hard and difficult and you don’t know what’s on the other end of that process. It actually never ends, that constant development and growth, and so I love your advice to lean in and embrace the messiness and the discomfort as part of the joy rather than as some kind of bug of this system. It is the system, and so am I.

In a piece we are writing together about students as partners, our recommendations are: to be brave and willing to rethink long held assumptions about roles and structures, to be aware of the huge body of research and design principles around students as partners, to be really attentive and mindful about power dynamics and to be intentional about them at every step, to be adaptive by constantly engaging with pulse check-ins with your thought partners and colleagues to gage levels of confidence and discomfort, to be clear about setting expectations and revisit them regularly, and to be patient.

  • Be brave and be willing to rethink long held assumptions about roles and structures
  • Be aware of the huge body of research and design principles around students as partners. 
  • Be mindful of the power dynamics. 
  • Be adaptive by constantly engage in “pulse checks” to gauge levels of confidence and humility
  • Be clear by setting clear expectations and revisit them as a team regularly
  • Be patient: Realize that focussing on process rather than on product needs patience and an understanding that slow progress leads to deeper culture change
  • Be equitable. Pay students.
  • Be consultative: Reach out to others who have engaged in students as partners work for support and guidance
  • Be reflective. More than any other principle, we learned the importance of engaging in critical self reflection – especially when the work gets difficult

And the one thing that I love, Sufia, that you have taught me again and again, is that we have to pay students, we have to be equitable, and we have to value and compensate student work. We value volunteerism as a part of citizenship in a civil society which we will do as adults, but students, particularly students who are precarious financially, have to be paid and have to be valued and compensated. I think that this is such an important piece of this Stadelman Fellowship and it has come through in so much of your advocacy and student leadership. So, do you have any final words or reflections for us?

Sufia Langevin: I definitely agree students should be paid and that’s something I bring everywhere, but yeah, I think the last thing I would say is just that this reflection piece I think is what facilitates the rest of it, and the rest of it comes so naturally when you’re able to do that. That introspection and that reflection on yourself and what you’re learning, it becomes so much easier to have those conversations and engage in these practices if you’re able to learn first and foremost from yourself.

Jessica Riddell: Well, thank you Sufia. I’ve learned so much from you and so much through our Stadelman Fellowship work together and I’m excited to carry these conversations into next year and beyond as we start to design what a post COVID University looks like. I can’t think of anyone better at the table then you and the work and the values that you represent. So, thank you so much and let’s carry these conversations into the future.

Sufia Langevin: Thanks so much.

[1] Pallant, M. (2011). The dynamics of expertise. Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, 93(3), 519–533.

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