In preparation for the voting period in the student government elections this week, the Vassar Student Association (VSA) held the Executive Board Q&A on April 5 in Rockefeller Hall. The Q&A began with questions for VSA Presidential Candidates Tamar Ballard ’19 and Jesser Horowitz ’19. Candidates for the other positions ran unopposed or, in the races for Chair of Finance Chair of Equity and Inclusion, only one of the two candidates was able to attend the Q&A in person.
The VSA came under close scrutiny earlier in the semester after eight members resigned, with some members citing objections of transparency and accessibility issues. Addressing doubts that current students may have about the VSA’s ability to represent student voices, Ballard reflected, “There have been times where the VSA has been a source of extreme emotional and mental pain for a lot of students.” Ballard continued, “I do hope that the next few years can work as a period to fix the relationship that the VSA and students have with each other, because the VSA can’t function without that relationship.”
Another challenge for the VSA has been its collaboration with the College administration in discussions ranging from finance to academics to residential life. Horowitz remarked, “I believe the first step to making meaningful change at Vassar College is realizing that, as students on this campus, we have incredible power, and that we have the right to demand that the administration respect and [be] conscious of our voices. We become powerless only at the moment that we believe we are powerless.”
President Elizabeth Bradley emphasized the importance of sincerity on both sides and commented in an interview, “Vassar can thrive best if students and administrators have authentic and strong relationships, each playing different roles and facing different constraints. Understanding each other and sharing goals for Vassar given its resources can help us work effectively to achieve those goals together.”
Cultivating resources and support for marginalized students is a common thread in the policy positions taken by candidates for other offices on the VSA Executive Board. Many candidates express commitment to better representation for underrepresented voices in their plans to lead student government next year.
Candidate for Chair of Academics May Venkat-Ramani ’20 outlined, “I want students to be supported and find the most beneficial and safe solutions during tough times.” One of these resources is the Student Support Network (SSN), comprised of the Dean of Students, Dean of Studies, Director of Counseling and Director of Residential Life, which evaluates confidential reports by any member of the campus community of students in crisis or distress. She elaborated, “Students have the right to understand the protocol that is followed when an SSN form is submitted.”
Based on the experiences of students with the Dean of Studies Office, Venkat-Ramani continued, “I would also seek to open up dialogue about the administration’s emphasis on leaves of absence as the most productive way to deal with physical, mental and emotional challenges.”
Dean of Studies Benjamin Lotto reflected, “I am surprised and concerned that students ‘believe that there is an overemphasis on leaves of absence’ in response to challenges faced by students. The Dean of Studies and others work regularly with many students at Vassar who face these challenges without ever mentioning or discussing a leave.” Lotto noted that a leave is an optional choice for a student who needs a break in their education to handle personal emergencies or concerns.
Speaking to the dissemination of information on SSN, Lotto offered, “The Dean of Students, who chairs SSN, sends out an email to all students every year with information on the work of SSN. We receive reports from all members of the Vassar community and beyond expressing concern about students. SSN then discusses each case and determines a thoughtful and coordinated response.”
At the level of student groups, Candidate for Chair of Organizations Dea Oviedo Vazquez ’20 suggested, “Many identity organizations on campus do a lot of the work of educating the student body on issues pertaining to race, class and gender…I think it is unfair to delegate all of the labor of educating us to identity orgs while also failing to acknowledge that they might need a different type of structural support than other organizations.”
A recent step in this direction has been the Centering the Voices of Student-Athletes of Color events hosted by the ALANA Center and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Other projects of note include the Engaged Pluralism Initiative, Student/Labor Dialogue, the Transitions Research Team, the Asian American Studies Working Group and student support for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. As another area of concern, Oviedo Vazquez noted that several orgs in the past year neglected sexual assault and violence prevention training, which is mandated for org leaders.
The gap to be bridged between bringing students from all backgrounds to a liberal arts campus and developing a safe environment for these students continues to pose a challenge for student leaders. Candidate for Chair of Diversity and Inclusion Eloudia Odamy ’21 said, “It is one thing to have diversity, but it is another to make sure that all students feel included.” Odamy argued that Vassar’s social justice perspectives can at times be limited to a few commonly discussed issues.
Expressing the belief that Vassar can be a welcoming community, Odamy described, “At Vassar, I feel like you can almost approach anyone and strike up a conversation … Vassar has a strength when it comes to forming friendships and coming together in times of crisis.” For Odamy, moving forward demands a balanced evaluation of positive practices and past mistakes on campus.
Candidate for Chair of Diversity and Inclusion Alice Marbach ‘21 similarly reflected on her place of origin and agreed, “At home in England I encountered much less discussion of issues of inclusion and minority issues. I love that the Vassar community has much more dialogue on these subjects, because I think that’s the first step to solving issues of inclusion.” Marbach continued, “I think diversity and inclusion come down to being able to find groups that you identify with, but also to have kind and accepting relationships with other groups. That’s why I think that promoting inter-group events on campus would help support new students find their place, but also be open-minded about others.”
Taking note of the wide range of student groups and individual student identities, Bradley said, “Students running for VSA positions might think about how hard it is to represent the full student body when we have such a wonderfully diverse set of students at Vassar. I imagine it is a very complicated, sometimes difficult, but also fulfilling role.”
Candidate for Chair of Finance Mendel Jimenez ’20 argued, “For too long the VSA and the student body have settled for a blind status quo about VSA Finance. Not enough students know the answers to basic questions about VSA Finance and the student activities fee, like how it’s allocated, who allocates it and when those decisions are made.” Top priorities for Jimenez include increasing accessibility of financial processes that can be overly bureaucratic and improving the budgeting software.
Jimenez hopes to address these issues by publishing a list of contacts in the Finance Committee that students can work with, and by pushing for software upgrades from the college administration. Jimenez concluded, “Every single student on campus contributes to the student activities fee, and the Finance Committee makes decisions through two briefly summarized approaches: fiscal responsibility and the guiding principles of the VSA. I strongly believe that we need to have more conversations about staying true to our guiding principles yet at the same time funding diverse opinions and viewpoints on campus.”
The VSA Spring Elections have also been a time of change for those working behind the scenes to implement the process. Chair of the Board of Elections and Appointments (BoEA) Nora Eigenbrodt ’18 reflected, “One of the most fulfilling aspects of the process for me is meeting motivated and inspiring candidates. It’s so exciting, whether in an election or an appointment, to see someone with innovative ideas and talents.”
Considering upcoming amendments to VSA structure, Eigenbrodt reported, “BoEA has worked with VSA’s Operations Committee on a couple different updates to the VSA Bylaws this year, and it’s an ongoing effort to target problems we see, like positions which historically don’t get applicants, and to figure out how to address them.” One such change has been merging the Terrace Apartments, Town Houses and South Commons Treasurer positions into the single position of Apartment Area Treasurer. Eigenbrodt also seeks to improve institutional memory by writing documentation for future BoEA committee members on the elections and appointments process this year.
Candidate for VSA Vice President Rori Chuck ’19 reiterated the focus on representation shared by the candidates for the VSA Executive Board, saying, “I think a good amount of administration and student leaders don’t understand the actual stakes when it comes to the secrecy around their decisions. The sincerity and integrity of our community and our relationships with one another are at stake. Our ability to honestly say that Vassar is a place for everyone is at stake.”
Acknowledging that ingrained habits and turnover in the student body can present significant obstacles to lasting institutional change, Chuck highlighted the possibility of progress and concluded, “I believe the successes are in making even the tiniest changes to the things that we previously believed to be immovable.”