Throughout Secretary Duncan’s tenure, thoughtfulness and passion for doing the right thing for students shined through his everyday work. But to fully understand his time at ED, we must look at the conversations he had with students. Before coming to the Education Department (ED), Arne was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, where he met frequently with his student advisory council. His efforts to engage students were no different when President Obama tapped him to be Secretary of Education. During his time at ED and on a monthly basis, the Secretary invited students from around the nation to his conference room for what he called “Student Voices Sessions,” to speak about their issues, concerns and ideas to improve education.
It was not only important for the Secretary to share his own vision for educational excellence but also an opportunity to hear from students that were part of today’s educational system. Some Student Voices Sessions included conversations with Native American students, undocumented youth, first generation and LGBTQ students, where they discussed their hardships and what ED could do to provide support.
By hosting these events, Secretary Duncan got to hear directly from students about what resources they felt were needed and allowed them to have an open dialogue about the future of education. He enabled and challenged students to speak openly and offered a secure space where no idea was too small and no critique too insignificant. The Secretary often mentions that he is lucky to talk to youth, visit schools and classrooms, but many times, his staff members don’t have that same opportunity. These sessions also allowed for staff to hear and learn from students about their daily experiences and challenges.
While students expressed their concerns with the educational system during these sessions, they often applauded efforts by the Department and the Obama Administration to increase Pell grants, protect student borrowers, simplify the FAFSA, create more college access tools, and support efforts to address and prevent sexual violence on campus. Youth also identified and highlighted student-led efforts around the country that were working to address critical issues that impacted their communities.
Ultimately, students left meetings with a sense of empowerment. Many would express to staff that they never thought someone like Arne would ever care about what they had to say, and listen so intently about their concerns. It is no surprise that Duncan was able to have a lasting impact on many students he met. Where else could students be a part of the national conversation on education and actually have a hand in their own futures?
The Secretary’s passion to create an environment where students can be honest and frank is one way that we can remember the indelible impact he had as Secretary of Education. We can also remember the individual that fought tirelessly day in and day out to ensure that all students, regardless of zip code, had an opportunity to access high quality education across the country.
Robert Gomez is the director of higher education outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and part of the student engagement team.