When I internalize the work I do on Barnard’s Student Government Association, I frequently realize how unnatural it is for me to stand up in front of administrators as a student advocate. Coming from an ethnic culture where filial piety and respect are core principles, challenging and questioning the decisions made by authoritative adults in the administration is seen as disrespectful and is discouraged. Yet this cultural expectation is the exact reason why I did not want to live my youth or be educated in that part of the world. In many ways, my interest in student government was a declaration and oath that I would make use of this position to protect the privilege that allows students to amend and shape University policies.
I romanticized what this opportunity meant and immersed myself in it to engage in what I considered a noble act. And after two years on SGA, I found myself jaded by the rejections I faced as I tried to take any initiative and mastering the art of following instructions outlined in the by-laws. The spirit of student activism and civil disobedience was no longer what defined my interest in student government. I felt defeated and lost, recognizing that all I had done was work within the system to create “community” with some creative programming.
So I took a year off from SGA. I gained perspective by working off-campus, became an RA to create community differently, and took lots and lots of eye-opening classes. I disengaged myself completely from student government as an experiment to see how I could create change as an outsider. But once again I was lost. It was an intersectional problem of my status as a nobody, I did not proactively seek to engage in campus issues, I had other things to do, and SGA did not ask for my contribution. At the end of last year I decided to come back to SGA, knowing that I could take full responsibility for some parts of this larger problem.
SGA’s current system allows us to have access to and communicate with almost all Barnard administrative offices. We have more committees than I can count, and this allows students to be aware of and question various administrative policies. Yet, this system has failed to execute its following two purposes. First, administrators should proactively come to SGA to incorporate student input in making decisions that directly affect the students. Second, students should feel invested in determining campus policies. SGA has no power to advocate for our peers unless we are given their opinions and thoughts to voice to the administration.
This college and University were built for their students. We are encouraged to grow as intellectuals and leaders through our liberal arts education. The way I have understood the value of this education is that it should be extended outside the classroom, where we apply theories and principles to shape our immediate and greater community. If we don’t feel invested and aren’t encouraged on our own campus to take action against policies that divert from the University’s core mission, perhaps we need to re-evaluate and try to understand where this disconnect originates from.
However, I can say that this year has been different. I applaud the actions that student councils and governing boards from all four undergraduate schools have taken to save CUArts and amend the fliering policy, among many others. I feel encouraged by the grassroots actions students have taken to save the Barnard pool and fight for Barnard’s workers’ union. The legacy of student activism this campus remembers is something I carry with pride and responsibility. It is motivation for the work I do on SGA and a reason to respect and value this campus and education.
My hope is that we all recognize how unique this time of our lives is, when we are encouraged and expected to stand up for the people and causes we care about on campus, and when we will hopefully be respected and heard in return. I will therefore argue that my ethnic culture would agree that this type of activism is commendable, despite what it contradicts, for it follows the principles of loyalty and logic of humanity.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in urban studies. She is president of the Student Government Association.