National REP4 Conference gives platform for high schoolers to pitch ideas to leaders at GVSU

On Aug. 5, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) hosted a virtual event as part of REP4, a national alliance of six colleges which joined forces to address equity and accessibility in higher education. This virtual event invited local high school student groups to pitch their ideas to leaders, including GVSU President Philomena V. Mantella, who founded REP4. Combined, the other five founding colleges include Amarillo College, Boise State University, Fort Valley State University, San José State University and Shippensburg University. Combined, these schools serve over 100,000 students. 

REP4 (Rapid Education Prototyping for Change, Learners, Community, Equity) exists to give voices to the younger generation and their goals of what they’d like to see in a diverse, inclusive higher education setting. Utilizing regional summits, national conventions, places of experimentation and virtual learning platforms, REP4 aims to give student learner stakeholders and underserved populations the ability to problem solve as change-agents.

GVSU President Philomena V. Mantella says REP4 started with a convening of students and industry leaders back in 2019. “Together, with a number of those individuals, we started to shape what became REP4 from the principles we took away from that first convening, which was Learners of the Center. Our work would focus on equity; our work would accelerate change,” she says. 

Moving beyond principles, the focus shifted to what was needed to facilitate the chance. “We’d figure out how to get action projects on the table, versus staying in the space of the theoretical, and then begin to do that work,” Mantella says. “When we drew out that very substantial aspiration for ourselves, we knew we needed people that would help us with this and begin to elevate the work nationally. We put together this alliance and began to work together on creating a shared framework.”

During the 2021 REP4 National Convening, two representatives from each member college presented their three-minute pitches to the six universities in a live virtual format, with public viewing/voting. Students Ester and Naomi represented UB Brilliant from GVSU Trio Upward Bound and discussed their idea to reimagine a college campus as more of a community with “Find Your Fam.” Through Find Your Fam, students would input details about themselves connecting them to college resources, clubs, organizations and friends in a virtual gaming format. Points used from interactions and activities could then be used at the student book store, for example. The other local group, Muskegon Promise Cohort students, showcased their design, “The Fab App.” The app allows students to connect anonymously with counselors and peers to talk about financial needs. Utilizing this platform, colleges could ideally reach out to local financial institutions and credit unions for sponsorship, according to student presenter Hailey Bos from Reeths-Puffer High School in Muskegon County.

Mantella spoke during the media call, following the national convening which received over 8,000 votes. “This is a journey we’ve been on for over a year, anchoring our various regions, working together in a shared framework to elevate student voice,” she says. “Today, we had just the absolute joy of showcasing these wonderful students who worked with us this summer, moving around their ideas into solutions through a design-thinking model. It was just so exciting. It was inspiring to see what they brought to the table — and to help us break our patterns of thinking and remind us to begin where they’re at in moving our institutions forward.”

Close to 40 cities showed a broad interest in student participation groups, garnering global viewers from different countries throughout the REP4 session. “We listened to each other, and we’re going to work together now prototyping these ideas,” Mantella says.

San Jose State University President Mary A. Papazian says she came away from the conference with a reaffirmation of a fundamental belief. “Ideas, and good ideas, and talent are everywhere, if we learn how to listen for it and create the spaces. It’s not for us always to come up with solutions.”

Following the conference and moving forward, Mantella says the next step is to continue working together as an alliance. Teams are forming and the next steps on moving forward to prototype these student pitches are being looked at. She says from the beginning, partnerships with local organizations have been crucial to accelerating change. 

“For the Midwest contingent, we had 20 partners in this cycle,” she says. “We started with institutional partners. We need community leaders, we need high schools … Across the alliance, we had 40 partners and we’ll continue to grow that. We’re going to take the best of these ideas, the ones that fit us the most, and begin to work on implementing those.” Moving forward, individual institutions will look at the proposed pitches, and begin examining the next stages for prototypes. 

Fort Valley State University President Paul Jones says that finding ways to imbed these discussions into the fabric of institutions is vital. “What we learned throughout this experience is that if you give them a safe space to have these discussions, great things can happen. But they need to feel that and understand that they can influence how we move forward.”

U.S. Industry Executive Director, Education at Microsoft, Mona Morales says connecting student needs with technology behind them can turn these ideas into real solutions. Aligning resources and continuing these conversations can build a more accessible, diverse, equitable higher education environment. She says seeing universities come together across state lines to work together is much needed.

“It creates an ecosystem that lifts everyone, and really supports the student in a way that’s meaningful,” she says. “To see this come together in the matter that it has, and it’s only just starting, is very impressive on so many levels. But at the core, is the student, and that’s where everybody’s attention should be … This is very unique ... This isn’t happening everywhere; this is really truly something special.”

More information can be found on the REP4 website for those looking to get involved as an educational partner, or financial supporter. 

Photos courtesy Kendra Stanley-Mills

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]