First year student Maria Rocha and other volunteers help check people in at the REP4 summit.

REP4 summit empowers students to chart the future of higher ed

Kennedy Walker liked what she heard at Grand Valley’s Kirkhof Center on Thursday morning. She also felt heard.

“I like that it’s using students and our voices, not just teachers,” said Walker, an incoming junior at Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy. “Especially with minority students. A lot of times our history is not taught in school, or our voices aren’t heard.”

Walker was in Allendale for the Midwest Learner Design Summit that is part of REP4, a program founded by Grand Valley that taps students to create and prototype new ways to provide more equitable access to higher education.

She joined more than 250 students from Michigan and the Chicago area at the first day of the regional summit, which continues with a similar session at Grand Valley’s Detroit Center on Saturday.

Grand Valley’s summit is one of five regional events taking place across the country with fellow REP4 Alliance partners. The events culminate with a Sept. 22 virtual national convening hosted by Grand Valley where ideas will be shared and evaluated.

For Walker, who counted Grand Valley as the fourth college she’s visited, the program also helped her get a better feel for the campus environment in Allendale.

For others, some of whom were setting foot on a college campus for the first time in their lives, REP4 provided an experience that opened doors to new possibilities.

President Philomena V. Mantella urged summit partcipants to be active in shaping their own futures.

“The most important piece of the work is that you discover more about yourself and what you want – that you understand you have power in this educational journey,” Mantella told the summit participants. “You're not just put in a slot, into an educational flywheel, that you have to just move through.”

Students share ideas at the REP4 Summit
Kennedy Walker speaks into a microphone at the REP4 summit
President Philomena Mantella speaks with two participants in the REP4 summit.

Chasity Bailey-Fakhoury, associate professor of educational foundations at Grand Valley, wanted young people who are considering their next steps in life to feel engaged in the processes that shape their experiences.

“I want them to leave today understanding that they have the power and the agency to solve problems, whether we’re talking personal problems, problems in the community or these big, vexing problems in higher education or society writ large,” Bailey-Fakoury said.

That agency is part of what drove Maria Rocha, a first-year student from Holland, to return to REP4 for a second year, this time as a mentor to younger learners.

“As a woman of color, I also want to inspire and be that role model for other people,” said Rocha, who plays cello and trombone and plans to major in music education.

She said the liberatory design process used at the summit has proven useful in her day-to-day life – particularly the emphasis on using empathy to understand and address challenges.

“I’ve learned not to make assumptions about people,” she said. “I put more effort into understanding other people.”

Examples of 2021 prototypes for change are posted at https://rep4.org/ideas, where the ideas generated at 2022 summits will be posted later this year.