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Unleashing the power of student perspectives: A day at Arlington Career Center with Designers in Residence

The Designers in Residence 2.0 cohort practiced equity-centered design during a visit to the Northern Virginia high school in June 2023.

By Bryana Ellis, Associate Education Designer


Do you remember being in high school? No matter how long ago that was, the angsty anticipation about what happens after graduation is enough for anyone to remember. This is the time in a young person’s life when they think about the future and make significant decisions.

Imagine how impactful it would’ve been if, in high school, the adults around you asked what you needed to maintain motivation and then let you decide how you wanted your future to look.

In 2022, a Qualtrics survey revealed that just 51% of U.S. high school students felt a sense of belonging in their educational environment. The pandemic led to decreased feelings of connection with their peers, teachers, and staff. Students who reported a strong sense of belonging were more inclined to express their intentions of graduating from their current school.

For the Lab’s Designers In Residence (DIR), insights like this are imperative to recognize, mainly because we’re building regional ecosystems across the country to support accelerated associate degree attainment for students who are Black, Latino, or from low-income backgrounds. These learners should be afforded a sense of agency, growth, and belonging.

To provide the designers with a real experience implementing equity-centered design, the Lab visited the Arlington Career Center in Arlington, Virginia, during the DIR project kick-off in June 2023. The high school students were invited to work together with the designers through a collaborative design process that ensured their voices and aspirations were heard and centered in shaping their futures.

For this design session, we wanted to create a holistic, safe space where the students were seen as the experts and had the power to make decisions to achieve their goals.

We broke down our session into the Understand/Empathize, Ideate, and Prototype phases, and began by asking students the following questions one at a time:

  • What goals and dreams do you have for your future?
  • What might block you from reaching your goals and objectives?
  • What support, resources, or guidance would you need to help you reach your future plans and objectives?

The room buzzed as the high-energy ideating was unleashed. The six Designers in Residence sat with small groups of learners at tables and listened — helping to reinforce the notion that the students were designing the experience. The stage was set for an equity-centered design session, and our student experts were at the heart of it all.

After every question was said out loud, the groups of experts would deliberate with the others at their table and discuss their ideas before sending several sticky notes up to the front of the room.

From the start, it was evident these young visionaries had unique ideas waiting to be heard. After the ideas were generated for all the questions, everyone collaborated in a grouping activity where prominent themes were highlighted.

Many of the insights that came out of the work of these students revolved around life/work balance, mental health, overall happiness, and being surrounded by like-minded and positive individuals. Students told us they wanted financial, academic, and existential support that one would receive from a community. The lack of some of those same things were also what students felt might block them from reaching future goals, including burnout, and lack of motivation, resources, knowledge, and support.

After the themes were grouped, they were tasked with coming up with an idea that could range from a product to a service or a good; they had to describe what reaching their goals and dreams would look like in a perfect world from their perspectives.

One of the most eye-opening aspects of the session was their nuanced, creative problem-solving. The beauty lies in their diverse ideas, contributing to richer solutions. The students exhibited ingenuity and thoughtfulness as they collaborated with their teams to design prototypes. Some of those ideas included:

1. The Student Community Center: Would offer an opportunity for students to enjoy a complimentary month of college. The program would cater to the needs of working students, including parents, full-time and part-time workers, and those with other commitments outside of school.

2. Summer Chances: A skill-based job fair designed for high school students, which would allow them to explore career paths that align with their interests or aspirations for higher education.

3. Scholarship “Tindr”: Revolutionizing the scholarship application process with a two-part system. A common application would streamline credentials and essays to match students with relevant scholarships. Additionally, the system offers options to connect with mentors who share their career and educational goals.

4. I Can M.A.K.E. (Mastery, Ability, Knowledge, Experience Education) It: A comprehensive program that opens doors to real-world experiences, including field trips, job shadowing sessions, and workshops. Aimed at nurturing the well-rounded development of students, particularly those who are non-native English speakers and have recently migrated to the U.S.

As the session ended, it became clear it was about more than just great ideas; it was about igniting a spark within each student and helping them feel empowered to mold their futures.

One junior student, Anaya Sinha, recounts her experience: “Students have a unique perspective regarding the challenges and obstacles we face, and this activity reinforced that. It was clear that everyone — both students and adults — were actively listening and wanted to hear our ideas. Having us, as students, be at the forefront of the conversation showed that there are people who truly have our best interests at heart and want to make things easier for us. It was incredibly rewarding to be in an environment where our ideas and stories were taken seriously. The conversation also made me reframe my perspective: I am able to be an agent of change and mold my future. Your willingness to support each student certainly instilled confidence among us to pursue our passions. There are resources out there to help me, and there are even more being developed.”

Realizing they could be agents of change and architects of their destinies was genuinely transformative.


RELATED RESOURCE: Accelerating Pathways: Early Process Insights from Designers in Residence 2.0


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