Student Senate Aims to Change Past Inefficiencies
GRACE SMITH // NOVEMBER 15, 2019
Asking Oberlin students ‘What is Student Senate?’ elicited various responses along the lines of:
“Wow [nervous laugh]. I feel like I should know this, but I don’t.”
“All I know is they send too many emails.”
“I can’t say if it’s effective because I don’t know anything they’ve actually done.”
There is debate surrounding the source of Student Senate’s mystification. Some have pointed fingers at Senate for a lack of transparency while others blame the student body for community apathy. Regardless of your stance on Senate, the core issue seems to be that students can’t take advantage of the resources they don’t know they have. This article aims to clear up some of this confusion and highlight administrative influence of which students could take advantage.
There are three bodies of Oberlin student government: the Student Union, the Student Finance Committee, and Student Senate. Student Union works to create a sense of community and facilitate events on campus. SFC reviews budgets and allocates funding to student organizations and individual ad-hocs. Student Senate is an elected group of 15 students that represent student interests to the administration and Board of Trustees. Senators are elected for a full academic year and elections are open to anyone at the beginning of each semester. Senators are paid Ohio minimum wage ($8.55 per hour) in an effort to make the time commitment viable for students of a variety of financial backgrounds.
Some Senators lead Working Groups that meet weekly and are open to the whole student body. At these meetings, students discuss relevant issues and formulate proposals to the administration. Working Groups change every semester based on the issues senators are passionate about tackling; for example, this semester’s working groups include winter term, student health and wellness, campus dining, international student support, etc. In addition, every member of Senate serves on at least one college committee, typically run by faculty and tackling topics ranging from student life to equity and diversity to admissions. Students outside of Senate can fill out an application to serve on a committee or in a Working Group.
An example of a Working Group’s efficacy is the International Student Working Group led by newly elected Senator Wenling Li. This Working Group aims to improve the quality of international student life. Last semester two international students started a workshop on the barriers of applying for OPT, CPT, and visas after noticing this information was not accessible in the college. Li aims to secure pay for these students so they can continue this workshop sustainably. In addition, Li hopes to work on the reduction of cultural shock, after noting in her work as a PRSM trainer how international students tended to be particularly disengaged in the program.
Another compelling project is the JED task force involving students, faculty, and Senators Emma Edney and Raavi Asdar. The JED foundation works with colleges and universities to strengthen mental health, as well as substance abuse and harm prevention programming. Treasurer Emma Edney says she started this work “out of necessity… I saw every single one of my friends struggling.” Edney is a member of class of 2021, which has seen a particularly high rate of academic withdrawals. So far Oberlin College is in the second year of JED’s four year plan. The previous year solely consisted of the Healthy Minds study, which Edney found, “troubling… we scored pretty high in substance use and suicidal ideation.” This year JED released a comprehensive, strategic plan on the goalposts the college must hit, such as reviewing medical leave policy and implementing educational policy for suicidal ideation.
If a student wants to express a question, comment, or concern one-on-one they can meet with any Senator during their weekly office hours or contact them via phone or email. This information is attached in an Excel sheet to every Senate Weekly. In addition, Senators convene from 7-9:30pm every Sunday night for Plenary. During Plenary, Senators cover a variety of topics such as updates on committees and Working Groups, to approving club charters, and discussing key campus issues.
I attended the third Plenary session of the year, which proved to be unfortunately long yet sincerely welcoming. A Senator passed out an agenda, which some scribbled notes and doodles on throughout the meeting. The check-in question “what was your dream job as a kid?” had people laughing freely around the table. In a moment of uncertainty, I was encouraged by Bridget Smith, who exclaimed, “Please speak! Usually no one comes.” Although a welcoming environment, Senate is not naive of its optics. While taking a group photo (as shown below), a Senator reminded everyone to “spread the butter,” referencing how people of color were grouped in the first photo published in the Oberlin Review.
Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, advised Senators to establish a task force for a revision of Senate’s by-laws. Raimondo noted, “One of the things your by-laws are blocking is your ability to get moving.” She noticed a “groundhog day effect” in which Senators were unable to catch everyone up to speed and accomplish their ultimate goals before new Senators were brought in by the semester elections. Since then, this task-force has been established to update the Senate by-laws, such as the election system, term length, and interorganizational ties.
While some Senate initiatives are quickly implemented and proven effective, others are far more stagnant. Evidence of this slow process was the move of the Student Health and Counseling Center to Dascomb. This idea was initially introduced by Senate in 2015, but was only implemented this semester. Additionally the idea of the DeCafe reusable bags was introduced and approved last semester. However, it took until last month for the reusable bags to be implemented and single-use plastic bags still haven’t been completely phased out of DeCafe. Although part of this delay was from an incomplete shipment, it also stemmed from slow and convoluted pathways of change.
However, many newly elected Senators are eager to change these traditions. Joshua Rhodes declared before Senate moves forward, “we have to get our house clean first”. He noted that his role of Communications Director was not even consistent in the by-laws. Kofi Asare, Operations Manager, hopes to represent the needs of student athletes on campus. In addition he hopes to improve campus life on the student health and wellness working group by finding “what we can do to decrease the amount of people who leave and don’t come back” through better access to counseling and education on self-care. David Mathisson, Chair of the Campus Dining Working Group, hopes to “expand the flexibility of a meal swipe” in DeCafe.
Senate Chair Bridget aims to “make Senate a more inclusive and comfortable space for students.” Last semester, a third of Senators resigned, which Smith believes was heavily influenced by stressful social dynamics; especially concerning social capital and the threat of “cancelling.” This year, Smith is trying to have a more informal Plenary session with more constructive criticism and less jargon. In addition, the Senate plans to host events and retreats later this semester to create a more cohesive group dynamic.
Over the years, returning students seem to grow disenfranchised with Senate. Typically first years are the largest voting base and it sometimes seems like pulling teeth to get the voting rate to 20%. Senators hope to change this dynamic by increasing transparency and demonstrating that Student Senate is a group of students with genuine intentions and not simply a “tool of the administration.” By design, Senate is effective to the people who seek it out. Joining a Working Group, going to a Senator’s office hours, or simply texting a Senator with one’s concerns can give any member of the community the power to impact administrative policy.