Blog / Being heard: a student’s seat at the table

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I’ve always been an ambitious kid with big dreams. Passionately Ambitious Hustler is the informal title I’d given myself, based on my initials. I find myself eternally curious... ideating meaningful solutions to solve problems and acting on them. I never limit myself by thinking that I’m just a student and this mindset is what brought me to the Office of University Initiatives (UI) at ASU as a Strategic Research Analyst.

However, in most other workplaces, it’s hard to get taken seriously when you’re working with a group full of adult adults. It's sometimes unfair that a person’s ideas are given merit proportional to their years of education and work experience, the degrees they’ve earned or the schools they attended. I don’t intend to demean the importance of educational attainment or belittle the value of someone’s age and experience. I acknowledge that there are many things us younger folks aren’t aware of because we’ve only lived, learned, and worked for so long. It’s also important to realize that every senior leader in any organization once started out as just a student and made their way up through hard work, persistence and learning from their failures.

But then, one must wonder: how can we get that chance to contribute to important projects and learn from it? How can we both create value and grow professionally? How can we have our voices heard? In this blogpost, I’m going to share some best practices I’ve learned working as a student researcher over the summer at UI and how I earned myself a seat at the table.

1. Ask... Understand 

As early as when you interview for the position, ask about the ground rules of the office, expectations of your position, dress code, office culture, etc. This gives you an opportunity to learn and understand the basics of your potential future workplace. Based on the sector, industry and size of the organization, there might be varying levels of bureaucracy, regulations, protocols, etc. Asking about them and understanding them from the onset helps you in multiple ways: (1)  you will know if the values and culture of the organization match your own. (2) the interviewers learn that you are a thoughtful and considerate person, which might earn you bonus points. (3) this will help you to prepare, mentally at least, before you start your position. Asking and understanding is an ongoing process, so don’t stop asking questions after you start your work.

2. Respect

Respect is a value that we must all embody at all times. Regardless of a person’s age, race, sex, nationality, etc. we’ve all been taught to respect and that’s a given. In this specific context, however, I want to emphasize respect for seniority in terms of age, title, experience and education. Bubbling with excitement and new ideas, it is tempting to interrupt conversations, speak over someone or want to get your point across before someone else does. However, it might end up producing the opposite effect of getting you credibility in some cases. Going back to ‘Ask… Understand’, knowing your organization’s culture helps a great deal in positioning yourself in meetings as different workplaces have different expectations for collaboration. For example, in UI, we are welcome to ask questions to a presenter/speaker as it occurs to us. In some settings, you might be expected to wait till the end of the presentation.

3. Accept

In some cases, you might be invited to a meeting or phone call with a group of senior leaders to observe and might not be given a given a chance to speak during the meeting. In these events, it’s better to accept your position and take notes quietly to debrief with your immediate supervisor afterwards. He/she can then take a call on sharing your thoughts with the senior leaders later. This is mostly done because many top executives are short on time and take multiple meetings everyday. In other cases, hierarchy plays a vital role for the sake of efficient communication and it’s important to accept that as a student worker.

4. Perform

There is no replacement for hard work and high-quality deliverables. Your mindset, body language and attitude aside, your work speaks for itself more often than not. The more sincere, thoughtful and refined your work is, the more appreciation, credit and opportunities you will get. This is not to say that you have to be perfect every time and never make mistakes; that’s close to impossible. It is just to point out that you should never do any of your assignmentshowever small⁠—half-heartedly. It’s okay to get bored, especially if the task is repetitive. Take small breaks or switch over to other tasks to help yourself get refreshed. As always, if you’re stuck or are not sure about something… ask.

5. Exhibit ‘Humble Confidence’

If your goal is to get a chance to be a part of important projects and develop new skills, in addition to performing well, it helps to display confidence. In this attempt, it’s easy to go overboard and sometimes even come off as haughty or condescending without your knowledge. This is a tricky conundrum because managing humility and confidence without tipping too much on either side is very challenging and I struggle with this from time to time. Some best practices that I’ve tried are being receptive to feedback, acknowledging and appreciating others’ ideas while still letting my passion for the subject at hand shine through. Other non-verbal cues such as sitting up right and affirming your colleagues by smiling or nodding shows that you’re engaged in the conversation and that it’s a two-way communication.


Appreciable work place practices are not limited to this list and I’m definitely no expert. I’ve only shared what I’ve learned from my experience at UI based on how it has benefitted my growth. My primary role was in assisting Dr. Andrew Nelson with managing ASU’s participation in the Alliance for the American Dream competition by Schmidt Futures. In addition to plenty of research, analysis and writing, I had the opportunity to be a part of many key meetings and had a chance to brainstorm ideas with the UI team on different aspects. I consider it a privilege to have experienced such learning opportunities, as this, as a student. I’ve enjoyed these rare perks thanks to UI’s culture of asking “yes, and?” questions to encourage creative ideas instead of saying “no, but” to shut them down. However, by following the above listed best practices and your own secret recipes, you can shine bright like a diamond in any organization.

Blog / Being Heard