Mantella elevates learners as consultants to the university

Ian Perez
Ian Perez is a high school student who joined the Learner Engagement Challenge.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

When a planned Grand Valley youth summit aimed at pioneering new strategies for higher education was canceled due to the pandemic, President Philomena V. Mantella led efforts to redouble that commitment and create a virtual program using the same guiding principles.

The result was the Learner Engagement Challenge, a six-week program which involved 25 area high school students, along with Grand Valley students, reimagining the future of learning to meet the changing needs of the 21st century.

The impetus for the event came from a November convening of educators, community leaders and students to start mapping a blueprint for transforming education to better serve students. The first-of-its-kind education summit in Michigan brought together participants from across the nation as part of Mantella's Reach Higher Together initiative.

What emerged from the subsequent Learner Engagement Challenge was learner-centered work that will help shape how Grand Valley moves forward in the initiative, Mantella said.

"These learners have inspired us, and their ideas and perspectives will play a key role as we lead the national conversation on a new vision for 21st century education," Mantella said. "Their insights will help set us apart as leaders who can model an educational system designed for learners and by learners."

Some of the students who participated in the Learner Engagement Challenge

Haylee Smith
Haylee Smith is a high school student who provided input.
Image credit - Valerie Wojciechowski
Tanthalas Taggart, a Grand Valley student
Tanthalas Taggart, a Grand Valley student, took part.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills
Jaylynne Calderon, a high school student
Jaylynne Calderon is a high school student who joined the effort.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

The students participated in design-thinking workshops, consulted representatives from the community and with university leaders, including Mantella, and designed ideas for envisioning a new approach to learning. In addition, the learners and lead student designers were compensated through Grand Valley's virtual, high-impact student employment initiative as well as other student support programs.

College of Education Dean Sherril Soman praised the participants for showing a “real connection to how you’re going to be global citizens in the world."

Henry R. Muñoz III, CEO of Muñoz & Company, the largest and oldest minority-owned architecture and design practice in Texas, said that student voices are the most important voices. 

“You have a lot to fight for. Never underestimate how important you are to your community, your country, and to each other,” Muñoz said.

Mantella commended the cohort for their work, noting she was pleased to see the emphasis for students to be self-directed learners.

"The effort and insight you brought to this project are incredible," Mantella said. "As the world continues to change rapidly you are our best thought partners."

Grand Valley student Julian Sanders
Grand Valley student Julian Sanders served as one of the mentors.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

Reach Higher Together

President Mantella's Reach Higher Together initiative aims to activate the entire community to lead change in higher education.

Find out more about Reach Higher Together at


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