Letter to the Editor: Reflections of a (Former) Student Leader

The Miscellany News.

The transition from high school to college is fraught with challenges and culture shocks as one navigates new environments, new people and newfound independence while simultaneously developing and negotiating with one’s sense of cultural awareness and morality. This transition is markedly different for students who come from marginalized backgrounds and communities. One of the largest culture shocks I experienced was navigating a primarily white and wealthy institution, especially coming from a low-income immigrant household and a culturally diverse high school. Vassar was not a place people like me often found themselves in, despite the institution’s many diversity and inclusion initiatives to recruit students from backgrounds similar to mine. 

So, how does one find community, feel like they belong or even just make friends when surrounded by such wealth and privilege? You find others like you and make it for yourselves. When I was a sophomore, I found just that in the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance (NAISA). Re-chartered by Gabrielle James ’22, Lena Stevens ’21 and Nika McKechnie ’21, NAISA was revived as a student organization in the Fall of 2020, and I was lucky enough to sit on the first revived executive board as the treasurer. In this group, we made sure to not only build and sustain a community but also to educate the institution as a whole. We discussed matters like blood quantum, repatriation and Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and global indigeneity; we brought speakers onto campus and talked to members of the Munsee Lenape, on whose land Vassar sits. In my time, I eventually became the secretary before hesitantly becoming the president of the organization in the Fall of 2022. 

Now, NAISA once again sits with no leadership team (to my current knowledge) or membership and has been centered in a recent controversy with the Vassar Student Association (VSA) in terms of funding. A recent petition by the Workers Student Coalition (WSC) critiqued the VSA and the process by which funding for student organization budgets are handled. As these events came to a head, I was on the sidelines as I tried to sustain NAISA as a student organization. As I mentioned earlier, I hesitantly took on the post of president for the organization, and I was scared and nervous about its health as a whole. Since its revival, the organization has struggled to maintain stable membership and sustain a leadership team. As the arguments surrounding budgeting devolved, my many attempts to recruit leadership and membership was all for naught, as I graduated and had no choice but to turn over the reins to the ALANA Center and the VSA to hopefully sustain the group so that another student may bring it back.

All of this brings me to my point: student leadership for affinity organizations are some of the most rewarding, thankless and at many times most tenuous positions in the culture of Vassar. As such, I would like to address a few points and themes I have seen in the recent discourse surrounding student organizations and student government. 

 

Accessibility and Transparency

One of the more heavily discussed themes of the recent controversy is the accessibility and transparency of student organizations and student government. Representatives from both sides have argued over the availability of governing documents, like bylaws and the constitution, and the transparency of governing processes like budgeting. This is a complex issue as accessibility and transparency rely on having these documents and processes available to all. However, in my opinion, availability does not equal transparency or accessibility. These processes require labor at every point in their development, creation and execution. Take, for example, the language and format in which such governing documents are written. As college students in an academically rigorous environment, we may be expected to understand such intellectual writing. However, the labor needed to decode such language may not be accessible or transparent. Additionally, the labor required to execute such processes hold within them colonial nuances that fail to take into account the capacity of student leaders of affinity, especially for organizations whose constituencies are smaller. I emphasize the point of labor because that is what it will take to make such processes truly accessible and transparent. In my experience, the bylaws and constitution of student government were not accessible or transparent because of the amount of labor it would take to fully comprehend and execute it. It would require a large amount of labor on behalf of the student leaders who already face an incredible amount of labor to merely ensure the sustenance of the communities they have built. So the question is: whose responsibility is it to make these processes accessible and transparent, as it is clear that both leaders of student organizations and student government are overworked and underpaid?

 

The Echo Chamber

There is no doubt that student leaders do thankless work. The productivity output of student leaders deserves immense respect and recognition. However, they should not go without criticism. A critical lens must be employed so as to not create an echo chamber, a phenomenon I have seen on Vassar’s student leadership landscape many times and something I have fallen into as well in my tenure. Recently, both sides have employed absolutist rhetoric that I challenge all of us to critically analyze. It is difficult to realize when you are sitting within said echo chambers, but one thing we can do is practicing calling in culture, as opposed to calling out culture. When a recent Miscellany News headline read, “VSA’s annual budgeting is fair and thorough,” I was inclined to respond because that claim did not align with my experience. As student leaders, we absolutely must defend and have pride in our work, but not to the point of absolutism. When we speak in these absolutes, we leave no room for growth and we remove our ability to adapt to what we need. As a student leader of affinity, I have seen these echo chambers work against us, seeing as these processes that create said echo chambers can often operate on the standards of wealthier, white student leaders. So, I hope to call in all past, present and future student leaders to be proud but critical of their work.

 

Institutional Memory

One of the greatest challenges student organizations face is the loss of institutional memory. In the process of reviving NAISA, it took many conversations with alumnae/i, staff and faculty to find the small parts of the organization that once were. These conversations at times brought more questions than answers. Why did the original iteration of NAISA dissolve? What type of programming did they do? Why are there no Native or Indigenous students to sustain this org? We realized that so much of this labor could have been prevented if previous leaders had opportunities to codify and institutionalize their work to challenge both the student landscape and Vassar as an institution. In the entirety of the recent exchange regarding budgeting, the NAISA name was used, but no one asked for my input or thoughts. Why did I not speak up then? Because I was more concerned with keeping the institutional memory of NAISA alive. As someone who has had their positions on student leadership removed without their input, I can only imagine the amount of knowledge and care that is lost when the echo chambers we operate in fail to take into account and preserve other perspectives. As a student leader of affinity, I have seen institutional memory preserve our work but not the people behind said work. So, I pose a challenge to all past, present and future student leaders to 1) document your work, 2) collaborate and listen to each other 3) and recognize the human behind the activism.

 

Responsibility

Student leadership is an immense amount of responsibility, which I think the recent discussion has so aptly displayed. These discussions are important, but what are the results of said discussions if they do not center the affinity organizations that have been lost in the scuffle? In all honesty, the entire exchange was an odd experience, as it felt as if everyone was talking about us (Native and Indigenous students, trans students) but not with us. No one reached out in the process of budget allocations (aside from the application itself) or in the aftermath. As someone who has led multiple affinity organizations, the responsibility can be overwhelming; you are responsible for sustaining a community that serves students from the most vulnerable backgrounds against a backdrop of privilege. I have posed many questions and challenges in this message, all of which bear some amount of responsibility. The question remains: Whose responsibility is it to make sure that these organizations—that do so much—are sustained?

 

This response may seem like I am sitting on the fence between student government and student organization leadership. But in all honesty, my perspective comes from someone who has seen both sides, has held the responsibility of both sides and has struggled to be a leader on both sides. All of the points I address are what makes student leadership so rewarding and so difficult. The answers to my questions and challenges are not clearly defined. To end, action speaks a whole lot louder than words. This response is a call to action because you can have a Land Acknowledgement and you can proclaim that you stand with Native American and Indigenous and trans students, but if your action does not match your words, it does not serve us any good. 

 

– Leonard Versola ’23

President of NAISA 2022-2023

 

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