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Podcast: How to Honour Student Voices in Higher Ed Spaces, with Kiara Williams

  • 26 Min Read

Join D2L for a chat about the importance of honouring student voices in higher education spaces with advocate Kiara Williams


Welcome to Episode 15 of Teach & Learn: A podcast for curious educators, brought to you by D2L. Hosted by Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, the show features candid conversations with some of the sharpest minds in the K-20 education space. We discuss trending educational topics, teaching strategies and delve into the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today.

Episode Description

In today’s show, we’re flipping the script and shining the spotlight on student voice. Honouring student voices in the education experience can take many forms. It could mean involving students in decision-making processes on campuses, recognising them as agents of change within their own learning communities, and so much more. But one thing is clear: when institutions take the time to embrace and listen to the people they serve, it not only creates a more inclusive and equitable environment for all students, but also has the potential to revolutionize campus culture. 

To discuss this topic further, we welcomed Student Voice Advocate, Kiara Williams. Kiara and Dr. Ford chatted about:

  • What is truly meant by the term ‘student voice’
  • Why honouring student voices can help make higher education institutes more equitable and inclusive
  • Two strategies for ensuring that student voices are heard
  • Advice for educators and college administrators on creating a culture that honours student voices

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Show Notes

01:06: An introduction to Kiara Williams

02:43: What does student voice really mean?

04:13: What honouring a student’s voice day-to-day looks like

06:03: Kiara shares thoughts on her journey to becoming a student voice advocate, including some of the challenges she’s encountered

08:27: How student voice can help make higher education more equitable and inclusive

11:13: Kiara shares the best strategy for ensuring that all student voices are heard

14:13: Tips on how educators and faculty members can honour student voices that lead to meaningful changes in teaching and learning

18:20: Kiara’s thoughts on what the best college professors do

20:11: How Kiara incorporates student voice into her work

26:03: Kiara’s advice for educators and college administrators on how to create a culture that honours student voice

Resources Discussed in the Episode

Learn more about Kiara Williams

Book Kiara for a speaking engagement

Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s Humanizing Online Learning

Ken Bain’s ‘What the Best College Teachers Do’

Learn more about Dr. Cristi Ford and the Teaching and Learning Studio

About the Speakers

Kiara Williams is a proud graduate of Georgia State University where she studied Human Learning and Development with focuses on Family & Community Advocacy, Psychology, and supporting multilingual populations. She has served as a teacher, mentor, scholar, world adventurer, student fellow, programs director, and now, a college instructor! Her most recent adventure took her back to the “Big Apple” to join Braven and The City College of New York as the Founding Program Manager of Braven’s Leadership and Career Accelerator course. Aside from ensuring a positive learning experience for all of her students, she has been able to inspire, develop, and guide them as they work towards securing strong first jobs and living their legacies. Prior to Braven, Kiara entered the tech space with her role at Apple where she was able to serve as a student liaison for the Inclusion & Diversity@College team, support Apple’s Diversity Network Associations (DNAs), and connect with company leaders during her career experience as an AppleCare team manager, all while supporting the larger population of Apple users through her role as an iOS Support Advisor. 

Kiara immersed herself in education, equity, and online learning spaces when she was chosen to be a Fellow for Every Learner Everywhere’s 2021 Inaugural Student cohort. This work allowed her to share her unique identity and experiences with an extensive network of higher education leaders, researchers, and stakeholders in the student journey. As a more recent learner with both online teaching and learning experience, she has been able to offer insight, support, and suggestions for faculty and staff, as well as articulate challenges that she has faced firsthand in these environments. Ultimately, Kiara strives to ensure that student voices do not go unheard when and where it matters the most. She hopes to continue being a passionate leader, advocate, and connector in change-making spaces for years to come.

Dr. Cristi Ford serves as the Vice President of Academic Affairs at D2L. She brings more than 20 years of cumulative experience in higher education, secondary education, project management, program evaluation, training and student services to her role. Dr. Ford holds a PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of Missouri-Columbia and undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field of Psychology from Hampton University and University of Baltimore, respectively.

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Full Transcript

Dr. Cristi Ford (00:00):

Welcome to Teach and Learn, a podcast for curious educators, brought to you by D2L. I’m your host, Dr. Christi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L. Every two weeks, I get candid with some of the sharpest minds in the K through 20 space. We break down trending educational topics, discuss teaching strategies, and have frank conversations about the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today. Whether it’s ed tech, personalized learning, virtual classrooms, or diversity inclusion, we’re going to cover it all. Sharpen your pencils. Class is about to begin.

So honouring student voices in the education experience can take many, many forms, from involving students and decision-making processes on campus to recognizing them as change agents within their own learning communities. Doing so not only creates a more inclusive and equitable environment for all students, but also has the potential to revolutionize how we think about the campus culture.

So educators, listen up. We have a real treat in focusing on student voices for this episode. Let me introduce you to our guest today. Kiara Williams is a leader of passionate voice in student-centred spaces. She has worked as a teacher, mentor, scholar, world adventurer, university ambassador, and student fellow. She is currently the founding program manager of Baven’s Leadership and Career Accelerator at the City College of New York, and has held previous roles at Mathnasium, Apple, WCET, and 3D Girls Incorporated. Kiara earned her bachelor’s degree in human learning and development from Georgia State University, and much of her work has involved ensuring that student voices do not go unheard.

She is passionate about education, the impact and growth, that ability and what it has, and believes that if she can just shed light on at least share with least one individual, all the work that she’s done will be worth it. Kiara, I’m really excited to have you with me here today.

Kiara Williams (02:05):

I am also excited. Thank you for inviting me.

Dr. Cristi Ford (02:09):

So I really think this is an important conversation. Because as I’ve talked with many educators today, I’m hearing stories coming out of the pandemic about the importance of student agency and voice. And what I’m hearing from educators is that by allowing student voices to be heard and taken into account and planning of institutional initiatives, the environment of collaboration fosters really allows for innovative solutions and a better understanding of the needs and wants of students. And so I want to start off, Kiara, by asking you, how do you define what student voice means?

Kiara Williams (02:43):

Absolutely. To me, student voice transcends the physical. It’s more than the literal sound, more than an utterance. To me, ultimately, student voice is autonomy. It’s how students are able to take charge of their own experiences. To me, student voice is also power. And when I think of someone having a voice in the context of today’s world, there’s a couple things I think about. One, are they free to speak up? Yes, everyone has a voice. Are they free to express? Are they free to speak up? Do they have the ability to make choices for themselves or provide input in the decisions that affect them? And to me, I know everyone has power, right? So I then ask, are you able to use that power? Are you being limited from stepping in and using that power? So when I think of voice, again, transcending the physical, it’s autonomy, it’s power. It is how you speak up.

Dr. Cristi Ford (03:49):

I love that. And I love… That’s a tweetable quote there. Student voice is power. I like that, that you focus on the importance of agency in institutional spaces in that way. And so as you talk about students’ voice and your experiences in working with other students, what does honouring a student’s voice look like to you in practice? How have you seen that play out?

Kiara Williams (04:13):

Yeah. I feel like I’ve been in situations where student voice is honoured, and then I’ve been in situations that they haven’t really honoured the student voice or allowed students to speak up. But one thing I want to start off with is that if something matters to someone, it matters.

So when I think about how it looks like in practice, I think one thing that I’ve noticed is that leaders, educators, and even adults creating spaces for students and young people to share things that are important to them and the things that matter to them so they can feel connected to what they’re doing, they can feel motivated to learn, they can feel safe in their learning environment. So when we think about honouring a student’s voice day-to-day, it’s allowing them to play that active role in their learning, their planning, in their system structure, contributions even. And this ultimately requires these people involved to embrace the fact that they can learn from students. So it’s really ultimately creating that space for these students to contribute, to speak their mind, and to exercise their power.

Dr. Cristi Ford (05:33):

I love that you talk about the importance of exercising and providing opportunities to exercise their power. We’re going to talk a little bit later about what that looks like in teaching and learning, but I’d love to hear a little bit more about your journey. As you think about… How did you get interested and starting to think about honouring student-centred spaces, or how did you get involved in thinking about student voice? And what challenges have you faced when attempting to honour the student voice?

Kiara Williams (06:03):

Absolutely. I got into this work, the student advocacy, the student voice, because ultimately. It stemmed from my belief that young people first can change the world. Young people, students are very powerful. When I was younger, I wanted so badly to be able to speak up. I wanted to fit into spaces, I wanted to be heard, but I never quite could reach that point. I would be in rooms, and there would be adults that always told me, “No, this is grown folks business. What does a child know?” And these things really did affect me, because when I was younger, I felt like I could truly contribute to the conversation, and I feel like I did have something meaningful to say. So when I heard these people in my life say, “This is beyond you, this is not your business, how could you possibly contribute to the conversation at hand? What does a child student know?” in my mind, I’m like, wait, no, no. Students know a lot. They have their own minds. They have their own thinking.

Young people know a lot. And I was silenced in that moment. And growing up, I was intentional about creating spaces and making sure that no mind goes untapped, no human goes without the ability to express, to speak, to collaborate, to share. So really, ultimately, it stems from my life journey and making sure that no one feels silenced because everyone has something meaningful to contribute, and I feel like everyone deserves that space to share.

Dr. Cristi Ford (07:56):

Yeah. I think that’s really powerful. And as we talk with educators about the importance of the student voice and thinking about how higher education is evolving and changing and what students want today is very different from even what they wanted three years ago. And I know you had some really great experiences at Apple and working with WCET. How do you think that student voice can really help make higher education more equitable and inclusive?

Kiara Williams (08:27):

Yeah, absolutely. When we think about the higher education spaces and we think about the students that we’re serving, when you decide to incorporate the student voice… I know in the spaces, they invited these students to the room, they got to interact with them. The conversation was so constructive. It was so insightful. And I really do feel like when we step into the higher education field and we want to make the best and most informed decisions for the students that we serve, it ultimately starts with inviting them to the table and truly figuring out what the needs are for the students. Because when we think about innovative solutions and we think about designing for students in mind, because ultimately…

Dr. Cristi Ford (09:18):


Kiara Williams (09:18):

… they are the people we serve, my first thought is, did we talk to them? Did you allow them to exercise their expertise, give their opinions, their ideas, and did you make them feel like they were valued? And so when we think about equity and inclusion, in that sense, it’s talking to the students that you’re working for, that you’re serving for, and really including them in that foundation, so that when you go to grow, when you go to create these new solutions and build your space, your school, your higher education institution, you’re incorporating those voices, so you’re not working with that limited foundation of one type of student.

Because like you said, education has changed tremendously over time. Three years ago, it’s different from today. What happened 10 years ago is different from today. So we have to continuously analyze, reassess, grow, and reflect on what we are doing, who we are serving, how that has changed over time. Because if we want to continuously make things more equitable, more inclusive, we have to include…

And the demographics are changing, and we have to make sure… It would be a disservice to ourselves if we are not including representation from all corners of the people we serve.

Dr. Cristi Ford (10:45):

Yeah. Yeah. Agreed. And as I talked to some of my colleagues in the last couple of weeks about how do they do this, they talk about creating personas, trying to understand the demographics they serve, or really focusing in the design element using UX designers. But as you’ve done this work more intimately for such a long time now, what strategies have you seen implemented to ensure that all student voices are heard?

Kiara Williams (11:13):

Oh, the biggest one, the biggest one is inviting students to the room, to the table. When you want to make sure a voice is heard, you have to allow them in that space. You have to allow them to interact with you. So that’s the main one that comes to mind, the invitation. Because honestly, I like to tell people this, a student, a person, they can talk, they can yell, they can scream all they want, but if the room is empty, no one is going to hear them. So the biggest action to ensure that voices are heard is the simple invitation to speak, to interact. And the next one is feedback. Do we have a culture of feedback? Are you wanting feedback? Are we getting that? And really listening to what the students have to say, because some people, they might not be inclined to change.

Some people welcome change and they welcome growth. So one, yes, the invitation to the room, so important, but two, feedback. Are you asking students what their thoughts are, what their opinions are on the curriculum, on the instruction, on the ways that they can contribute, allowing them to assess themselves, assess their peers there. There’s a lot that I have seen successful. And I know that in the spaces that I’ve stepped in, especially in my educational journey, the ones that I felt most heard is when the professors and the educators allowed me to speak my mind, and they were open to me speaking my mind. So I really do feel like it’s just that cultivation of space for students to do so.

Dr. Cristi Ford (13:09):

Yeah, that’s powerful. And as I think about the work we do at D2L as a learning company, I really appreciate and acknowledge the time and intentionality we put into thinking about the student experience, thinking about the opportunities to engage students in multiple opportunities. And in fact, we’ve had you as a partner in a couple of engagements with us to really make sure that we are also sharing with our clients and our partners that student voice can be transformational. And so as I thought about the institution piece, you talk about offering spaces in the room for the voice and feedback. I think about campus spaces and about institutional priorities. But on this podcast, we talk about teaching and learning. And so as you think about maybe some examples you might be able to share with some of our listeners, in what ways can educators, can faculty members, honour student voices that lead to meaningful changes in teaching and learning?

Kiara Williams (14:13):

Absolutely. I feel like there’s quite a few ways to do those. One thing that I think about first is the inclusion part, right? So seeking that input on design, on creating the norms you want to have in your space. And of course, educators ultimately have the decision, whether or not they want to implement those suggestions, those opinions. The other one is how you are going to have that reflected in your space. So whether it be offering options, an educator offering options on ways that a student could contribute, whether it be to meet the needs of the learner, because we know that every learner is different. No two students are the same. So it’s giving them that space to choose how they want to contribute, to choose the ideas that they want to share. And this can be from asking them, the simple conversation, asking students what would work best for them, setting the stage for that in the beginning, just seeing how they want this semester to go. What would work best for them to learn in the best way, and for an educator to teach in the best way?

So I really think feedback, seeking that input, allowing students to step into leadership roles in that space as well. I feel like that could be a very powerful transformation. When you give a student the power to make their decisions, to step into those leadership roles, I really feel like that’s going to boost the motivation of the student to want to show up, to want to learn because they’re not being silenced. They’re given a chance to express, to share, to lead. And ultimately, I feel like those are quite a few ways to incorporate that into some strategies that educators can have in their classroom, because ultimately, it’s allowing them to speak up, to take some responsibility in the classroom, in the design, in how they assess themselves, and also just giving them a space to use their own backgrounds, right?

Dr. Cristi Ford (16:31):


Kiara Williams (16:31):

Our story is powerful. Our backgrounds are unique and powerful. So allowing students to use their backgrounds, to use their experiences, asking them, “What is your skill? What are your strengths?” and using that to aid in their learning and absorption, I feel like that those are all things to set the stage for that inclusion, for that promoting the student voice.

Dr. Cristi Ford (17:00):

Yeah. As I listen to you, there are certain things that come to mind that I just want to share with our listeners. One, it reminds me of Dr. Ken Bain talked about what the best college professors do. And one of the things he talks about is an invitational syllabus, that you have to provide an opportunity for students to see and to invite them to the learning experience. And since the pandemic has been a major influence in terms of our teaching and learning spaces, we also hear from Michelle Pacansky-Brock, who talks about humanizing the online experience through a liquid syllabus.

And so when you talk about the importance of experiences of students, it reminds me that we have to, as educators, think about andragogy and heutagogy, thinking about the self-directed principles. And how do we allow students to be a part of the process as opposed to be the conduit of the learning? And we want to make sure that we’re not so set in terms of how we’ve created these learning spaces, that we’re not allowing students to be able to be a part of that opportunity experience. So I really appreciate that.

Kiara Williams (18:08):

It’s so funny that you mentioned the Ken Bain, what my best… Repeat it. What my best college instructor…

Dr. Cristi Ford (18:19):

What the best college teachers do.

Kiara Williams (18:20):

Yes, what the best… So in my work with every learner everywhere, we actually took that as an inspiration, and we gave students space to describe and share their stories on what their best college instructors do. And it was so interesting to me to hear those stories that the students… And we didn’t limit it to any type of student, right? We opened the floor to students across the country, to share their stories with us. And every learner everywhere created a resource called What My Best College Instructor Does. And honestly, just hearing the similar themes in that their best college instructor made them feel safe, made them feel seen, they encouraged our learning, they promoted authenticity and showing up as their true self. So it’s so funny you mentioned that because I got to be a part of that work and collecting students stories and editing that resource and really making sure that the student voices were highlighted on that. So I love that you brought that up.

Dr. Cristi Ford (19:29):

Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s really powerful to be able to look at those resources, to be able to help educators to be inspired about what they’re doing and the kinds of impact, because many educators, most educators got into this field because they’re interested in making a difference in being able to be supportive to young people, to learners, to help them to be able to learn their craft and learn their expertise. And so I’m thankful for you reminding us of that resource today. But I know things have changed for you. You’ve transitioned out of being a full-time student, as I read your bio, and your new position, the founding director’s position. How have you incorporated student voice into your work?

Kiara Williams (20:11):

Absolutely. I do love the work that I do now. So I am the program manager of a leadership and career course at the City College of New York. So I got to finally put on my college instructor hat at the very young age of 23, and it has been a beautiful journey thus far. And when I think about the work that I do outside of my job, because again, my passion for education, impact and growth, it transcends a job. This is my passion, this is my work. And when I’m able to bring that to the spaces… In my current job now, I think about my fellows, my students. And when they show up to class, I’m always going to promote them being authentic, them communicating. I always want them to, one, not only be proactive communicators, but I want them to speak up. And I feel like culturally, a lot of them have been conditioned in a way that they feel like their voices don’t matter.

I feel like a lot of my students have experienced those spaces, those environments where they were silenced and they were put in that position where it’s like, “Okay, well, I’m an adult, you’re a child,” or “I’m the teacher, you’re the learner.” And when they step into this space, I want them to know that whatever comes out of this experience is ultimately up to them. They have complete power over how their class session is going to go. Every week, they have learning lab. And this is highly discussion and reflection base, and whatever they put in is what they get out. And so it’s beyond them showing up and them listening to someone speak to them. We have leadership coaches that do help facilitate the conversation, but ultimately it’s a lot of project-based learning, it’s a lot of discussion, reflection on their own journey, their own experiences.

We don’t have any standardized testing in that class, because ultimately we want to know their strengths, we want to know what they learned, and we want them to fully embrace their stories and their journeys and transform it into something meaningful. We want them to grow. And so I really do love the structure of our semester. And at the end of our semester, they have a capstone challenge where they’re able to step into their own leadership roles and build a team project with their cohort and come up with innovative solutions using their ideas, their skills, their strengths.

So I love it. I love the power that students have in the course that I instruct and that I manage, and I feel like it’s semi-new. I feel like from my experience, it’s semi-new to these fellows to have so much autonomy in their learning experience, and it’s a very transformational and challenging time. I know it’s not easy for them to learn how to speak up and to realize that in this space, if you don’t speak up, if you don’t communicate, then there is going to be misalignment. There is going to be disconnect, because this is the importance of life, is your voice, your power, your story.

Dr. Cristi Ford (23:52):


Kiara Williams (23:52):

This is going to take you far. And so I love being able to foster that in class, in their learning labs, in their time together with me. And so student voice is the centre of the work that I do right now, and I want more spaces to realize the value in these unique stories. I hear them reflect, and I’m like, “Wow, you’ve experienced a lot, and I know that the learning curves from this are going to be so great for you moving forward if you frame it as such.”

Dr. Cristi Ford (24:27):


Kiara Williams (24:28):

“If you are allowed to exercise this power, I can feel that you are a powerful person. Do you know are a powerful person?” So incorporating that student voice, to me, it’s not even like, oh, am I going to do it today or not? No, this is what we do.

Dr. Cristi Ford (24:45):


Kiara Williams (24:45):

We want students to not… I’m not even going to say find their voice. They have it. We want students to use it.

Dr. Cristi Ford (24:55):

Yeah. Very, very powerful, Kiara. As I’m listening to you, excuse me. I’m just really excited about the opportunity to be in connection and collaboration with you over this last year. You know that I wholeheartedly support the work that you’re doing because I know that honouring student voices is transformative and thinking about campus culture and advancing equity across campus college campuses. And I think it’s essential that institutions prioritize making sure, as you mentioned, all students are included in decision-making processes, that their voices are heard, so they can be able to realize their power, to have an active say in involvement in their own learning and their future.

And so it’s really great to hear how you’re doing that, even at the age of 23 and teaching your students and fellows. So really appreciative of that. But I have a couple of questions for you. In this episode with you today, I guess I wonder what advice would you give other educators or college administrators on how to create a culture that honours student voice?

Kiara Williams (26:03):

Ah, yes. Yes. So my favorite word right now in the season of life that I’m in is the word intention, doing things with intention. So when I speak and when I take action on something, I know I value doing these things with intention. So I feel like my main advice to other educators, to administrators on creating that culture is doing it with intention. Do you want to honour the student voice? If the answer is yes, how are you going to create that culture? Are you going to be intentional on ensuring that students are able to express, that they are able to have that open dialogue with you and exchange and provide feedback? Are you going to be intentional on fostering that space? And so that’s my main advice, doing it with intention.

Is this something you want to do? Are you going to prioritize making sure that your students feel safe and heard and seen in the spaces that you have, whether it be the classroom, whether it be in the general campus spaces to create something, to come up with solutions to create an event. Are you going to hear these students out? Are you going to invite them to the rooms? Are you going to do it? Are you going to do it with intention? That is my ultimate advice, is that do it, and do it with intention.

Dr. Cristi Ford (27:39):

Colleague, you heard it here first. Kiara Williams, really passionate voice. Really happy to have you leading the change that we’re seeing in higher education institutions. If all of the students and the student voice that comes into the room is like yours, man, our future is so bright. I really appreciate you joining us today.

Kiara Williams (27:58):

Thank you.

Dr. Cristi Ford (27:59):

Thank you so much for coming on and being a part of the Teach and Learn Podcast today.

Kiara Williams (28:03):

Of course. Thank you again for the invitation. It was a pleasure speaking with you, and I really do hope for more students, more young people in these spaces, be the bridge, be the connector, be the change, and I’m so excited to see how our spaces transform in the future because of this.

Dr. Cristi Ford (28:26):

Fantastic. Thank you again, Kiara.

Kiara Williams (28:29):

Thank you.

Dr. Cristi Ford (28:31):

You’ve been listening to Teach and Learn, a podcast for Curious educators. This episode was produced by D2L, a global learning innovation company, helping organisations reshape the future of educational work. To learn more about our solutions for both K through 20 and corporate institutions, please visit You can also find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. And remember to hit that subscribe button so you can stay up to date with all new episodes. Thanks for joining us. And until next time, school’s out.

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Table of Contents
  1. Episode Description
  2. Listen Now
  3. Show Notes
  4. Resources Discussed in the Episode
  5. About the Speakers
  6. Subscribe to the Teach & Learn Podcast
  7. Full Transcript
  8. Subscribe to the Teach & Learn Podcast