A record number of students voted in last week’s Student Government Organization election. With over 713 votes, the student body ratified a new constitution and elected an entirely new executive board for the 2015-16 academic year.
The constitution solidified changes in the structure of SGO, many of which were implemented a few semesters ago.
“This model has been tweaked over three spring semesters, and I think we’ve come to a good place,” said current SGO co-president Jason Heo ’15. “The goal has always been to make us a more legitimate body, not for our sake but for the student body’s sake.”
Previously, the body was called Student Council (StuCo) and had ten representatives who would “pursue relevant initiatives and liaise with faculty and staff,” according to its old website. StuCo held the power to propose resolutions and hold referenda, and also controlled the student activities budget, appointed students to committees, and chartered groups.
Though the basic powers remain, SGO was created “in response to a limited, decentralized, and under-representative student government,” according to the new Constitution. Apart from the name change, SGO is now composed of an Executive Board — which oversees the entire body — and a Student Senate, composed of 22 students, two from each class year, eight from the student body at large, and another six from different affinity groups on campus. Two senators will be representatives of the Intercultural Center, one of the Black Cultural Center, one of the interfaith community, one of Greek life, and one of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
“I think we’ve done a lot of repairing broken internal units, administrative units and external relations with administrative members,” Heo said. “[With the new structure] we are bridging the disconnect that the average non-student government student sees with the administration.”
Sun Park ’16, the other co-president, thinks SGO has done even more than just create a more efficient or representative body. In the last year, SGO has worked on several initiatives to both make the campus safer and to improve student life. Among these is the bias response policy SGO worked on to respond to serious incidents on campus in a way that will help the community heal and bridge tense relationships between groups. This, according to Park, came about after the spring of 2013, when StuCo did not respond to the many incidents that defined that semester.
Many of these changes, in fact, were implemented in response to claims that student government was not a legitimate body with the power to effect real change.
“It’s about building legitimacy so that we can help every student do what they want to do, see what they want to see on campus,” Heo said.
According to Park, last week’s election is proof that students see SGO differently than they used to. Not only did almost half the student body participate, but candidates reached out to student groups and recognized the issues on campus — in other words, they actually campaigned for their positions.
Still, many students did not vote, and think SGO is not different from StuCo in any meaningful ways. Part of the ambivalence is also due to the fact that there is a general lack of understanding about the role of SGO on campus, or the power they have to create change where it matters.
“I knew [the election] was happening, but I’m not really sure what they do,” said Damella Dotan ’15, a member of Swarthmore’s Coalition for Change, which seeks to reflect on previous activism and make changes that respond to historical demands.
Dotan thinks that student government, in its many iterations, has always had nominal power compared to that of the Board of Managers, or the administration, particularly on matters of importance.
“I definitely commend people that are involved in student government,” she said. “But I’m just not really sure how they’ve been change agents.”
Park insists SGO has reached out to different constituencies to understand what the important issues are for students and act accordingly. Still, students must also come to SGO with their demands if they want them to be addressed.
“If the student body does want some of these things get done, there should be some expectation that there’s a give-and-take relationship,” she said.
Natalia Choi ’15, also a member of the Coalition for Change and, two years ago, StuCo’s financial policy representative, thinks this is exactly the problem. She does not think that SGO is making enough of an effort to reach out.
“How it’s set up now, if you have complaints or changes you’d want to be made, you need to go to them, rather than the other way around,” Choi said. “I don’t want to discount their efforts. I feel like they have led good initiatives. But it would be really meaningful for me, in terms of getting my trust, to see them in those [activist] spaces more — see them trying to identify where these conversations are already happening, and coming to those to listen. It would be a very useful gesture to create these relationships and conversations.”
Choi notes that it’s not just about showing up, about making a coalition’s entire work fit into a Student Life survey, but to engage in meaningful ways — “listening for a sustained amount of time.”
Heo maintains that SGO’s increased legitimacy on campus makes it a great medium through which to engage about important issues. Park agreed, noting that administrators are more engaged with SGO now than ever.
Still, Heo and Park both say that there is room to grow.
“I want to talk about all of the positive things. A lot of us are really proud about the work that we put in but I don’t think that were opposed to criticism,” Park said. “We’re really willing to take constructive criticism and take it in a positive direction … We hope to build that relationship [with students] and an organization that is strong enough to represent the entire student body and go against the administration if we need to.”
Steve Sekula ’17 and Christine Kim ’17, the co-presidents-elect, know that there is a lot to do.
Sekula in particular thinks increased communication — which was central to his platform — will help the student body understand what SGO actually does and will therefore encourage greater participation and change.
“A lot of what we’re going to try to work on next year is make ourselves more accessible,” he said.
In accordance with SGO’s increased visibility, particularly through their study breaks and the larger campus-wide events, Kim hopes to streamline the event proposal process and ensure students are able to have greater control over their social lives at the college.
Park is optimistic about the future of SGO and its potential to effect change.
“I think people are willing to dedicate a lot of their time and effort to make our campus better,” she said.