A Student Perspective: Student Empowerment

By Marea Colombo

Student Empowerment

Perhaps unsurprisingly, students are dedicated to creating opportunities for student empowerment. I think before continuing, it is important to recognize that although student empowerment does positively affect students, there are extensive limitations to student-led student empowerment. University is a time in which students should be, and often do, focus on their own development. Many students are attempting to juggle academic work, new and intense social interaction, and a part time job.

Given these difficulties, it would not be surprising if we never saw student-led student engagement. Despite these difficulties, however, many students still seek opportunities that benefit both local communities, and themselves. And, to be fair, student empowerment does have many benefits to students. These experiences often given students the opportunity to: build their resume; network with other likeminded individuals and to raise awareness about issues they are interested in. In addition, this individualistic altruism can also be less self-motivated, such as the desire to give back to their communities and the opportunity to empower others. Regardless of the underlying motivations, student empowerment is the first step to developing global citizens.

One example of an organization that provides opportunities for student empowerment is Ignite Consultants. Ignite is a student-run, not-for-profit organization that provides free consulting to local businesses in Dunedin and Wellington. As the Operations Manager on the executive, my role this year involves working with students to encourage both professional and personal development. Ignite provides a unique opportunity for students to engage with local community members. During this experience, students typically learn important information about their local community. First, students learn that these non-profits face a host of difficulties – from financial resourcing to marketing to governance issues. Second, students learn that in spite of a worthy ethos, some organizations struggle more than others. Third, students often learn that the local community does not always reflect the same privilege as the university community. During the Ignite process, the students become aware of the issues that concern their organization and they actively engage in seeking improvement for the community on at least some of these issues. Although this is an example on the local level, I truly believe that Ignite imbues within students, a desire to make positive social change.

Student empowerment, however, does not need to follow an Ignite model. Student empowerment, at its core, is about encouraging students to encourage other students. This can happen through dance classes, or study groups, or a board game night with friends. Student empowerment can be as complex as the Ignite model, or as simple as asking someone what they enjoy about their classes. Student empowerment is about showing students that they have skills and resources that could benefit somebody else. The Matariki Network is well poised to develop new and innovative ways to support students. The key is to identify what experiences truly empower students, and then develop programs that can achieve those goals.

Community Engagement

In a similar vein to student empowerment, student-led community engagement has both altruistic and individualistic motivations. Community engagement gives students the opportunity to develop real world experience. This real world experience can help direct students in their study and in ultimate career paths. Furthermore, I truly believe that students want to bridge the privilege gap between the university and the wider community. In many cases, such as at The University of Otago, many students have grown up in the local community around the university, and they feel an impetus to give back to a community that has supported them their whole lives. The university is a fantastic resource for the local community; there is a wealth of intelligent and socially motivated individuals. The community is also a fantastic resource for students; the community provides opportunities for students to discuss and share ideas.

As previously stated, Ignite Consultants provides extensive opportunities for community engagement. Every semester, we recruit 20 fantastic university students and divide them into four teams of five students. Each team is assigned to a local non-profit that has approached Ignite seeking help. Students spend 8 weeks getting to understand the organization with which they were paired. At the end of the project, students produce a strategic report, outlining possible solutions to the problems outlined in the original brief. Ignite is a perfect intersection of student empowerment and community engagement. Perhaps our most successful Ignite project was a project for the Cancer Society. Students in the group devised an annual student Relay for Life to be held at the University. The proposal was fantastic. What was more fantastic, however, was that the students who completed this Ignite project became heavily involved with the Dunedin Cancer Society and were part of the planning committee for the first student relay.  These students went above and beyond their duty as a consultant and the typical 8-week contract. The hands on experience of community engagement can be exciting and fulfilling for students who are feeling as if their classes lack practicality. Although I can only personally speak to Ignite Consultants, the University of Otago has a huge number of student groups that focus on community engagement, from Generation Zero, to Med Students for Global Change and UniCrew Volunteers.

Although the community does typically want to engage with students (and vice versa), there are limitations to student-led community engagement. First, as previously stated, it is sometimes difficult to remove students from the university “bubble.” Second, it is important to maintain positive town-gown relationships and this can be difficult when there are negative impressions of university-students. Third, it is important that in our community engagement, we are actually communicating with community members to understand what they want. In my third year of university at Middlebury College in Vermont, I completed a service trip to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. During this student-led trip, we travelled around local communities and worked at “health fairs.” While preparing for the trip, we discussed the big issues in these communities (sexual violence, lack of contraception). I learned one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned:  community engagement means doing things with people, not doing things to people. For example, in my program in Mexico, the women running the program would always start by asking the women in attendance what they want to talk about. At first, this shocked me.  We had been trained to talk about sexual safety and consent—that’s what I was prepared to talk about.  It seemed silly to ask the participants for conversation ideas!  Sometimes the women we visited wanted to discuss sexual safety, but sometimes they wanted to learn about diabetes, or how to cook a meal without oil. This service trip taught me that sometimes the “big issues” we identify in communities from the outside are not always the issues the communities are experiencing. In order to promote effective social change, we need to actually engage with other communities and work together to build solutions. Finally, because the majority of students come from out of town, many students do not have their own networks in the community; they may feel as if they do not have the support networks required to provide support to other people.

Global Citizenship

It is no accident the Matariki network was born at the University of Otago and was given a Māori name; global citizenship is embedded in the cultural values of Otago and of New Zealand, especially those of manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga. We do not have a word like manaakitanga in the English language; this word encompasses all the ideas of hospitality, kindness, generosity and support. Manaakitanga is the process of showing respect, generosity and care for all other people. Global citizenship means learning about and understanding individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds and, irrespective of race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, treating people as part of a larger global family. In addition to treating other humans with respect, the Māori people also believe in an intrinsic link between humans the natural world. This kinship is expressed through kaitiakitanga: actively protecting the environment. According to Te Ao Māori, we are guardians of the planet, a planet that we eventually pass on to our children and grandchildren. Being a global citizen means protecting the environment not just for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of generations to come.   In my opinion, manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga highlight two important characteristics of global citizenship: unity and longevity. Being a global citizen is about working together to secure a future for both the planet, and the people who will inhabit the earth. Given the transient nature of students, the Matariki network is vital to creating global citizens; these universities provide the stable framework of unity and longevity that allow students to develop.

In my opinion, there is a process involved with students becoming global citizens. First, students want to engage with other students. This process allows students to talk about their ideas and share experiences and find likeminded individuals. Next, students will hopefully use this student support network to engage positively with the community; students have a desire to connect with others and to solve global issues. Again, students are given the opportunity to hear a range of experiences, views and opinions. Students can explore cultures, diversity of thought and challenges to their views (which can either help solidify a stance, or motivate change). Once you increase your global understanding, you are closer to being a global citizen.

The topic of global citizenship is difficult to discuss, because it is often unclear what we mean by global citizens; although we want to respect “community values and practices,” we need to consider how we determine “community values and practices.” The world is full of diverse people who have differing views. So, although we may have a global goal, we need to respect the diversity in the world. In addition, although we may agree on the goal, we may disagree on the mechanism to achieve that goal. This poses a challenge as to how we solve global issues. Furthermore, students can often experience burn out and disillusion as they realize how many global issues the world is currently facing.

The key to creating global citizens is sharing and transferring ideas, expertise and opportunities. The Matariki network is well placed to discuss the challenges local communities are facing in order to decide what is currently viewed as a “global” versus a “local” problem. In addition, the Matariki Network can help to share, test and possibly disseminate models of global citizenship and programs that empower students and engage with the local community.

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