Presidential 2016: Highlighting Student Voices at our Today’s Student Town Halls

The following post was written by Juanita Tolliver, Manager at America Forward, and Sarah Groh, Manager at America Forward.

Can you imagine working a job, raising your grandchild, and combating poverty all while enrolled in college? Or, what if taking a “gap year” actually meant leaving school and working at the Gap for a year in order to pay for your food, transportation, and housing expenses?

These are just a few of the powerfully candid stories we heard from participants and attendees at America Forward’s Today’s Student Town Hall in Columbus, Ohio last week. This event was the first in our series of Today’s Student Town Halls where we bring together students, recent graduates, elected officials, campaign staff, institutional leaders and community stakeholders for a powerful dialogue about the barriers today’s college students face and solutions for the next President.


Traditionally, town hall events during a Presidential election cycle might feature a question or two from a student, but we took an entirely different approach and created a platform in which student voices took precedence. Students came ready to share, listen, discuss what’s working/not working, and highlight what the next President needs to know about Today’s Students.

Nancy, a grandmother who raised her granddaughter while putting herself through college and worked to overcome barriers of poverty, addiction, and housing crisis rose from the audience to tell her story of earning her degree at 52 and becoming a social worker.
Rob, a recent graduate from Kent State University, highlighted the fact that today’s college students face a new reality, and that we need to make college work for the students who are working more than 30 hours per week because it’s hard to prioritize being a student when you don’t have a roof over your head or food in the pantry.

Terry, a YouthBuild Alumnus and Opportunity Youth Mentor, shared his story of earning his G.E.D and completing college coursework through an Ohio State University program while incarcerated but continues to struggle to find an employer or gain admission into a college that values his potential since his release. Terry’s brave story opened up the dialogue in the room, and one of the elected officials in the crowd approached him after the event and committed to writing letters of recommendation, making phone calls, and doing whatever he could to help Terry realize his higher education goals and aspirations.

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No one has a better take on what works than today’s students themselves, and America Forward’s Columbus Today’s Student Town Hall event was a testament to the power of directly engaging students, institutional leaders, community stakeholders, elected officials and campaign staff in an honest dialogue about the burdens and barriers that prevent today’s students from accessing and completing higher education, and what we can do collectively to improve America’s outdated federal policies and higher education system. It is the honest stories and actionable policy ideas that will guide America Forward’s policy discussions and recommendations as we continue our outreach and engagement efforts with the presidential candidates this election cycle.

The America Forward team is thrilled to collect, compile and share the ideas, solutions, and outcomes voiced by today’s students during our town hall events as we continue to engage Congress and the Presidential campaigns in policy briefings and discussions so that policy makers and the next President and Administration can better understand who today’s college students are, and address the challenges they’re facing so that all students are primed for success. And this is only the beginning!


We’re excited to continue the dialogue on Tuesday, July 19th in Philadelphia, PA at a second Today’s Student Town Hall that will feature a number of America Forward Coalition and Partner organizations including Year Up, NCLD, KIPP, Graduate! Philadelphia, and many more. We hope you will join as America Forward facilitates a second robust dialogue about the challenges today’s college students face in accessing and completing a post-secondary education, as well as viable community-driven solutions and ideas for the next President and policymakers.

Click here to register to attend our Philadelphia Town Hall, and check out the growing dialogue on twitter via @America_Forward, #TodaysStudent and #AFPresidential16. To get involved in America Forward’s Presidential engagement efforts contact Juanita Tolliver and Sarah Groh on the America Forward team.

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