UWCers Effecting Change on University Campuses
There seems to be a growing trend emerging of UWC alums taking on leadership positions at university. We had the opportunity to speak to four young alums (who graduated recently from four different UWCs!) who are leading change at their college campuses. Amina (UWC Red Cross Nordic, 2016-2018) and Eunice (UWC Maastricht, 2016 -2018) are Co-Presidents at Concordia College and Kush Sharma (UWC Mahindra College, 2017-2019) and Marcos Pacheco Soto (UWC Changshu China, 2018-2020) are co-presidents at Bates College. We spoke to the Co-presidents about the inspiration behind their journeys in undertaking their campaigns with fellow alums and the goals that they hope to accomplish during their time as Co-presidents.
At the heart of why the four alums decided to run for student government lies the common drive to be actively involved in community building and bringing about change.
Kush’s involvement in student affairs since his time at UWC played a pivotal role in his decision to run and in being able to choose the discomfort involved in taking on the issues he saw around him:
“I had been part of the student government since I first got to Bates College and I could see that there were things that could definitely be improved upon. Ultimately the conversations I was having around that time when elections rolled around were key to my decision to run. A lot of these conversations revolved around being an international student. It's a tough experience, you are going through an immense cultural change, you are trying to find your life in this new space and in this new country and everything that surrounds it. And so you can see those problems, but what you do about them is really up to you. I have international friends who sort of settle into their own bubbles because it is hard trying to find answers to those challenges. And while I was also super drawn to just not do anything about those things, I think my time at UWC, where I was also in student government, made me choose discomfort. It made me choose to have those uncomfortable conversations and to do something about the issues I was seeing, rather than just talking about them.”
Marcos was motivated by similar sentiments, despite only being in his first year at Bates when he ran for the position.
“I feel like if you're willing, and you have the privilege and the energy to carry on with a project that may bring changes to the school, you better go for it. In this case, there was nothing stopping me. And of course, there were a lot of “cons”. Being in a new college, I pretty much didn’t know how things operated before COVID-19, unlike most of the people who had already been studying at Bates pre-pandemic, but I felt that I could bring fresh ideas and new perspectives. I was already building super-strong relationships with people there and getting in touch with the different structures in the college, so I felt the confidence to run. This was what motivated me, just the idea of being able to make a change and make it now, and not aligning to the tradition of waiting until I was a rising senior before I run for student government, which is a significant thing - at least at Bates.”
How Kush and Marcos ran their campaign also meant that their abilities to connect with other voices and opinions across campus were ultimately more important than the years of experience at Bates that they each had under their belt. As Marcos explained, “I think the thing that motivated people to vote for us was the idea of open governance. The idea that student government could be more like an institution in itself or more like an instrument or platform for students to amplify their voices and concerns. Our idea of open governance took student concerns and made a shift towards creating enacting mechanisms for student participation.”
Moving over to Amina and Eunice at Concordia College, this pair of co-presidents had not initially planned to run for student government. However, after realising that students were excluded from many important decisions, especially during the COVID-19 period, they realised their voices were needed in the student government.
“Eunice and I and a couple of friends had started petitions to advocate for international students and to amplify our voices. But it still didn't make a big difference because our student government was all over the place. So we realised that if we wanted to bring about real change, we had to be willing to represent the student body ourselves. So we decided to run two days before the deadline - which meant having to somehow collect 300 signatures in under 48 hours, all while our school was under lockdown. This process of collecting signatures carries additional challenges for international students: You can't get any signatures if you don't know people. And for international students, it’s sometimes hard to fully integrate into these US, predominantly white college communities. Despite all of this, we received a lot of support. Many people believed in us as leaders because we had been involved in every part of our college, not only in the student government - and ultimately, we won. We are trying our best to make sure that we have open dialogues; we are encouraging our school to have different talks and discussions- open discussions, not only monologues. We want students to share their thoughts and opinions with us so that we can do our best to represent them.”
Eunice added: “I have been in situations, as most of us, of being the one who's led. And it means you get to see the loopholes in the government or what's not going right. When I arrived here, I was in the International Students’ Organization. I started from Public Relations to Events Planner, Vice President, and then I became President. Throughout this time, I got to see how the student government was probably not investing enough in certain organisations, such as the International Students’ Organisation that I was part of. I could see how, despite American universities wanting to promote diversity, college funding was still not equally spread out in this regard. That motivated me to want to make that change. And if you want to make an impact, you have to be in the position to make that impact. So that includes running for such positions.”
Advocating for the rights and support of international students is an issue that is close to the hearts of all four alums - being international students themselves and coming from a UWC background. Beyond this, they all realised it was also essential to talk to different groups of students that make up the student population, appeal to a broader audience, and avoid predisposed assumptions about different groups of students taking a foothold in the school.
As Kush commented, “Running our campaign to represent everyone - across different years, backgrounds and interest groups- was critical to us. We wanted to represent the Bates students, not just this particular community or that particular community. I think one thing that helped was talking to people throughout the campaign; we talked with clubs and organisations that represented different parts of campus life, different classes within our student body, from the environmental coalition to peer advisors. At the end of the day, these were all Bates students, irrespective of where they were coming from.”
When asked why they, as UWC alums, have gone on to take on these additional challenges in their different colleges, they all had similar responses: their UWC education taught them to be proactive and use their skills to seek positive change.
Amina’s love of participating in her community and giving back, even if it was not in a student government position, was nurtured during her time at UWC: “UWC gave us that courage and taught us to be brave in taking on responsibilities. Many people I know are great leaders who want to see change happen, but sometimes it takes more than that. I give a lot of credit to my time as a UWC student living the UWC mission. We were educated to bring these kinds of sustainable changes to our communities.”
In addition to his UWC experience, Kush’s running was also inspired by a conversation with one of his professors at a difficult time for Kush when he was considering transferring to another College. What the professor told him then really stuck with him:
“She told me that wherever I go, I would find problems, but that it was up to me to choose what to do about these problems - so as a lotus blooms out of the mud, I would have to find ways to bloom wherever I am. She said I was very welcome to leave Bates and wished me all the best, but just to also remember that I would find problems at my next place. I realised that this was very true, and it changed the way I now choose to look at and deal with the problems I face.”
Speaking of advice, the students ended the conversation with the following insights from their own college experiences to pass on to the recent graduates from the class of 2021 as many of them prepare for or start their journeys at university.
"Be open-minded, do not expect your college experience to be like UWC. Be open to discomfort and always remember that not everyone has the same background or opinions as you do. Have conversations with people you would usually not talk to and be ready to be a changemaker. In all things, do what makes you happy and don’t depend on other people to give you validation."
"Remember to take care of your mental and physical health. There will be many new opportunities and new experiences, do not burn yourself out trying to do everything all at once. Do what you are drawn to the most, stay grounded and true to yourself but be open to new experiences and integrating into your new environment."
"Remember that everyone’s experiences are unique. Do not expect your experiences to be the same as mine or anyone else’s. Although you will face stressful situations, do not let that negatively impact your experience. Be open, try new things; if an opportunity presents itself and you are not sure about it, go for it and allow yourself room to fail and to grow. If you want to participate in leadership, go for it; seek change now."
"Think of this new, post-UWC, experience as a blank canvas that you will fill daily with new experiences. Ask yourself if what you are doing is what you are meant to be doing and if the answer is no, then change that. Be proud of who you are, be gentle with yourself and with others. Believe in something; if you truly believe in something, you can make it happen. Don’t be afraid to take chances. If you are running for student government, just do it - you’ll think that odds are against you, but you’ll be surprised. Worry about things you have control over, then go from there."
We wish these Co-Presidents all the best as they continue to lead and seek change in their communities!
Article by Woopi Takarasima.