K-12 Education

Building Student Governments that Put Students First

September 1, 2020  • Ranen Miao, Junior at Washington University in St. Louis & Education and Society Program

Volunteering, government, and service have been part of my weekly routine for as long as I can remember. My passion for public service motivated me to run for student government in high school and again in college. To say that my experiences have been different is an understatement. In high school, as vice president, I focused on programming and spirit, usually executing decisions made by administrators. In contrast, as student body president at my university, I have had the opportunity to lead new initiatives and contribute to large-scale policy decisions. 

College student government has allowed me to find my voice in this new environment, and I’ve used that platform to represent a wide swath of students who held my identities, political beliefs, or desire for change on campus. My increased responsibilities have allowed me to make a greater impact on the lives of my classmates. To better prepare students for college and the real world, high school student governments should shift to emulate the culture and structure of student governance at the university-level. Some changes include:

  1. Include student government leaders on high stakes decisions.
         a. Instead of concentrating power in the hands of administrators, school districts can grant agency to student leaders through representation on the Board of Education and an independent budget. Instead of only relying on student governments to program, high school administrations can create task forces that rely on students for input and grant students access to administrative meetings. In the midst of COVID-19, my university invited me to sit on key committees with Trustees and high-level faculty regarding remote learning and reopening. I was able to articulate the concerns of my fellow students and help administrators better understand the challenges that came with this unprecedented time. High school students are experiencing many of the same challenges, and they too need a place at the table to speak directly about their experiences. High school student leaders should thus be included in conversations about reopening schools, mental health, and online learning. By integrating student voices, administrators can make better decisions that best reflect the students they intend to serve.
  2. Make student leaders partners in action.
         a. During high school, my meetings with administrators were limited. I had to go through my high school’s Student Liaison Committee and High School Democrats chapter to meaningfully lobby for change and offer a student opinion to people in positions of power. Administrators should make consistent attempts to meet with student leaders and make them feel heard. In college, when I had the opportunity to work with administrators, I felt listened to and respected. These leaders didn’t invite me as a courtesy; they wanted to hear what I had to say. By making students feel valued, we can create a culture of action where students have the incentive to act when they see injustice because they trust their administration will respond. Instead of talking down to students, we should talk with them about the issues in our classrooms and schools: instead of treating student government as ornamental, we should make them functional.
  3. Give students the opportunity to lead their own initiatives.
        a.One of the highlights of student government is election season. Far too often, though, student government elections in high school become popularity contests because the positions offer no leeway for students to build their own unique initiatives. In college, I had the potential to create real and meaningful change, so I ran on policy-based platforms. I spent far more time thinking about what changes had to be made across campus, and articulating why. With thousands more students voting, personal connections can only get you so far; you have to actually run a campaign that people are interested in.When I was elected to office, I had the chance to actually implement these platforms. In my time as first year president, I executed my platform, securing a $50,000 commitment to expand access to menstrual products across our university, co-founded a Cultural Night that has been adopted as a permanent event, and expanded the student government’s jurisdiction to include advocacy and philanthropy. While I was incredibly excited to personally make changes, it was far more rewarding to see my classmates’ excitement. The policies they had pushed me to run on were coming to fruition. By giving students the opportunity to lead new initiatives, administrators can make student government more rewarding for both leaders and constituents.

Still, colleges and universities aren’t perfect. I have often been excluded from conversations where I’ve felt strongly that student voices were not fairly considered. However, I’ve rarely felt disrespected after leaving meetings, and have never been denied the opportunity to speak openly about important issues. The work I’ve done in my time in college has given me a far greater platform to give back to my community and create changes that will last after I leave. I hope high schools take note and increase the power of student leaders on campus to ensure that engaged students have avenues of creating meaningful change.

Student government is a bridge in our schools between students and the adults who work to educate us and prepare us for the real world. Dialogue and mutual respect are necessary components of creating an educational experience that enable students to grow, and prepare them for a world where they are entitled to treatment as equals. This era of chaos and turmoil has shown us that student voices are integral to our future: it is only through offering platforms that we can foster the leaders of tomorrow.