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CSHPE Experiential Learning Group Photo

Back on the Road Again

After a pandemic pause, CSHPE experiential learning trips return


Melinda Richardson, Managing Director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (CSHPE), loves watching students have “aha!” moments.

“Those quiet moments where a student will turn to you as you’re walking down the sidewalk after a site visit, or say to you over breakfast in this off-the-cuff way, ‘Wow I didn’t realize that. I’d never thought about that before.’”

Since 2013, Richardson has worked with various faculty members to organize CSHPE’s experiential learning program, which comprises annual domestic and international trips that augment coursework by expanding students’ understanding of higher education beyond their own experience as undergraduate and graduate students. In that time, groups have traveled to South Africa, Chile, and England, as well as visited tribal colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the U.S. In 2020, Richardson was looking forward to taking a group to Washington, DC for an excursion that would focus on HBCUs and federal education policy when the pandemic halted all travel plans. It wasn’t until this spring that Richardson—along with Associate Professor Rosemary Perez and 11 CSHPE master’s and doctoral students—hit the road again. Their destination? The San Francisco Bay Area.

Perez, who had worked at the University of San Francisco earlier in her career, was familiar with the higher education context in California. She looked forward to sharing with students the distinct dynamics at play in the Bay Area that distinguish it from the rest of the state. As well, the group would observe the forces that shape and constrain how the Bay Area operates. Drawing on connections with former colleagues and CSHPE alumni who now work in the region, Perez and Richardson organized a 10-day itinerary that would include visiting philanthropic organizations, community colleges, elite institutions, and a community walking tour. Policy would be a main focus of their study.

As the faculty lead, Perez hoped the experiential content of the course would appeal both to students whose course of study focuses on policy, and those who might not feel so directly connected to it as a subject area.

“Often when we talk about policy, we frame it primarily through federal and state lenses. Often, we’re talking about legislators,” says Perez. With this trip, she wanted to explore policy implementation with a variety of stakeholders. “We’re all affected by policy, but how do you make it accessible?”

Although her own research is not in public policy, Perez notes that her research exploring individual and organizational learning and development in collegiate contexts is of consequence to policymakers and at the institutional level. “Policies are not just made by the government: policies are also made by institutions of higher education. We really tried to think through how both are of consequence to students, faculty, staff, teachers, and community members.”

Offered for the first time as a credit-bearing course in the spring term, the trip was hardly a vacation. It explored how advocacy, service, and community partnerships, combined with sound data and research practices, inform and shape public policy in the microcosm of the San Francisco Bay Area. As part of their learning experience, the group met with decision-makers and policy influencers, considered a range of timely higher education issues being addressed at a variety of institutions, learned from community members about their experiences, and honed skills as policy influencers and change agents. Along the way, students contextualized their conversations within the fabric of the San Francisco Bay Area’s diverse population.

In addition to being present and engaged at the meetings and presentations throughout the trip, each student was assigned a site for which they would serve as the subject expert. In advance of their travels, students researched and prepared questions in order to foster meaningful engagement between the group and their hosts. After the site visit, the designated lead student wrote a blog post for the course website, reporting on key impressions and takeaways that shed light on their previous understanding of the topic at hand.


The group’s first visit was to the University of California, Berkeley, where they were introduced to the Basic Needs Center, which provides holistic support to students and community members by addressing food and housing security and financial needs. In addition to a food pantry, the center also offers one-on-one nutritional counseling and assistance applying for CalFresh and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Berkeley Underground Scholars

At a meeting with the Berkeley Underground Scholars (BUS) the group met the community of scholars and activists who work to create a pathway for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and system-impacted individuals into higher education. Participants shared personal stories about the connections BUS had afforded them—assistance in landing professional opportunities, securing housing, and learning about self-care.

CSHPE alum and Oakland native Joshua Lee (AM ’12) introduced the group to the East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF) where he is a senior program officer. By practicing trust-based philanthropy (which forgoes a grant application process) the organization invests in issues including housing insecurity, education, and climate justice while centering the needs of communities impacted by systems of oppression.

Black Liberation Walking Tour of Oakland

To gain more context for how gentrification and urban renewal has impacted communities who have long existed in the San Francisco Bay Area, the group took the Black Liberation Walking Tour of Oakland where they learned about the historically Black Hoover-Foster neighborhood.

At the Public Policy Institute of California, the group gained insight into how the nonpartisan think tank focuses on California-specific issues and provides objective empirical inquiries. Students learned about how the institute chooses its research topics, its current research regarding dual enrollment and FAFSA completion rates, its methods of data access and collection, the channels it uses to inform policy, and its collaboration with partners.

At City College-Chinatown/North Beach, Interim Vice Chancellor of Academic and Institutional Affairs and CSHPE alum Geisce Ly (PhD ’09) hosted a conversation among fellow Bay Area community college leaders centering on leadership and governance in California’s community college system. The group also heard from City College student Nhi Pham, who attested to the supportive nature of the institution that helped her learn English, build confidence, develop a supportive community, fill out job applications, and pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.

At San Francisco State University, the group met with the chair and faculty members of the school’s Race and Resistance Studies department, which was recently restructured to explore the history of incarceration in the United States, examine comparative relational work, and embody liberation studies for Students and Communities of Color. They were also treated to a panel discussion among San Francisco State University student affairs administrators. “The occasion to hear from others about their varied career trajectories comes at an opportune point in our study program,” wrote doctoral student Alex Cabrera.

Hewlett Foundation

The Hewlett Foundation’s Program Director of Education Kent McGuire discussed how the foundation and others in the education sector must approach issues like public dissemination and institutional change in new ways. This spurred master’s student Meghan Krawczyk to note that “funding can provide resources to grassroots organizations or researchers to generate pressure on policymakers and decision makers to make informed decisions that will serve the public well.”

At Stanford University, the group was welcomed by Associate Director of Educational Programs and CSHPE alum Angie Hawkins (AM ’08). Hawkins led a panel discussion with deans from the Graduate Life Office, which holistically assists graduate students in navigating situations ranging from family and health concerns to academic challenges to financial difficulties.

To foster a more nuanced understanding of gentrification and its impact on the East Palo Alto neighborhood where Stanford University is located, the group heard from community members including Hawkins; Melvin Gaines, East Palo Alto City Manager; Laura Martinez, former mayor of East Palo Alto; and East Palo Alto lifetime resident Marquisa Hawkins.

A visit to Laney College (a community college in Oakland) introduced the group to Restoring Our Communities, a program that provides holistic support to formerly incarcerated students. Led by staff (several of whom were formerly incarcerated themselves) who have developed multiple approaches to supporting student success, the program offers peer mentoring, staff advising, academic counseling, informal tutoring, and support with transferring to other institutions.

While visiting the Office of the President of the University of California, students heard from several administrators about the process of creating a new policy that was prompted by passage of the California Gender Recognition Act (SB 179) in 2017. The policy, which was developed with community input, allows students to update their names in all university systems to reflect their lived name, as well as the introduction of three gender options which are required on forms, instead of a gender binary.

This made a big impression on master’s student Wynter Douglas, who wrote, “The UC system is the third largest employer in the whole state of California, so the policies they enact have a big impact on state law.…As a Trans Nonbinary person, it was very special to be able to be at this panel and to ask questions and understand how to push these types of policies to exist within higher ed.”

Berkeley Underground Scholars

To wrap up their journey, the group met with CSHPE alum Dr. Chris Nellum (PhD ’14), Executive Director of The Education Trust West, a nonprofit educational equity organization focused on educational justice and closing achievement and opportunity gaps from preschool through college through research, data, policy analysis, and advocacy. CSHPE students participated in the Trust’s Data Equity Walk, which engages participants with education data and encourages the discussion of equity issues. Dianna Torres (AM ’23) wrote that the visit offered an understanding of how the Education Trust West is able to push policy forward by “shining a light on the importance of creating partnerships with organizations and people at different levels. It was refreshing to see an organization take action while incorporating the greater community.”


Building meaning across the breadth of organizations and people the group encountered happened formally and informally throughout the trip. As for the “aha!” moments: sometimes, Richardson says, a student has a revelation walking back to the van after a site visit. Perez also built in time for the group to reflect throughout their 10 days together.

“We had students try to make sense of ‘What does this mean for you? What are your key takeaways and what are you going to do in your own practice?’” she says.

At the end of the trip, students were required to write a reflection piece, taking into account all that they had observed over the 10 days, and what those experiences brought to bear on their understanding of higher education and their role as practitioners in that space.

Experiential learning, says Perez, “makes things that you read and talk about come to life. I think sometimes in the academy, particularly at elite institutions, everything is much more in our head and we have idealized versions of what should happen. We have theoretical and empirically demonstrated things that we think other people should be doing when we might not have the experience to make those critiques fair or think about the implementation or the constraints. We might not have the nuance to really think about what this looks like in real life. So I always push my students on, well, so what? Let’s translate this into real life. That’s what you’re going to be doing at work. It’s not as simple as it looks on paper.”

Meeting with CSHPE alumni—including former director Marvin Peterson—also demonstrated the breadth of the program’s impact in the field. “For our current students to see Chris Nellum of Education Trust West walk into the room and give Rosie a big hug, and give me a big hug, they see that alumni are supportive of both current students and each other. Being a part of the CSHPE network is both very powerful and a real privilege,” said Richardson.

Perez hoped it was enlightening for students to see faculty members in a different context—among former colleagues and friends. “For them to see us at SF State and see me with my colleague Alvin, who I’ve been friends with for 20 years, they saw that in this field you can do this work and stay really connected to colleagues across space and time. It’s the relationship, the care. That’s what allows us to still talk about policy 20 years later.”

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