Editor’s note: Max Rubin, a staff columnist for The Eagle, was not involved in the reporting, writing or editing of this article. This article appeared in The Eagle's March 2021 virtual print edition.
In January, a group of freshmen, many of whom still have not had an on-campus experience, were sworn in as the newest members of the 16th Undergraduate Senate of Student Government.
SG swore in seven freshmen senators, two of them elected for Campus-at-Large positions, and five elected as senators for the Class of 2024. SG also swore in one transfer student to a Campus-at-Large position.
Two months after they took office, these senators have already set lofty goals, despite being limited to purely online negotiations and legislation.
While some senators got involved with specific goals in mind, such as increasing transparency within the senate, others said they were primarily interested in advocating for the American University community as a whole.
“I decided to get involved with SG because I wanted to be a part of a community, while also making a difference,” Senator for the Class of 2024 Méron Washington said. “Having previously experienced PWI [predominantly white institutions] as a Black woman, I knew the issues that would occur at AU and I wanted to step in and help with those issues.”
The most recent statistics released by AU from the fall 2020 semester showed that just over 53 percent of the undergraduate student population identifies as white, with around eight percent identifying as Black and 12.5 percent as Hispanic/Latino.
Jonathan Durham, another new senator, agreed with Washington and acknowledged the underrepresentation he has faced in predominantly white spaces.
“I got involved to truly be an advocate for the underrepresented, hold the administration accountable, and work towards a more inclusive and transparent AU community,” Durham said.
Parthav Easwar, a senator for the campus-at-large, said that he saw the organization as the best avenue to help improve the AU experience for his peers.
“I got involved in Student Government because I saw it as a mechanism to advocate to the administration for a better overall campus,'' Easwar said.
Max Rubin, a sophomore transfer student and senator for the campus-at-large, believes that his experience working on a congressional campaign and as a student senator at his previous college will allow him to make a positive impact on AU’s campus.
“I saw something that I had previous skills of working to organize people across different viewpoints to make progress towards a shared goal,” Rubin said. “I can hopefully use those skills to impact a large group of people in a very positive manner.”
The new class of senators’ main goals remain the same: to increase transparency, accountability and communication between SG and the student body. However, they’re facing a different set of issues than any new class of senators has faced, requiring bolder ideas, they said.
The senators have prioritized taking steps to address issues surrounding mental health and Greek life, with some already proposing significant reforms.
Whitney Powers, a campus-at-large senator, stressed the importance of finding solutions to the problems AU’s Student Counseling Center has posed.
“I am in the process of creating a commission to explore both short-term and long-term solutions for some of the issues we are seeing with the Counseling Center and easing the burden on it,” Powers said.
Rubin said that one of the next subcommittee groups will be on mental health reform.
“[The reform] is mainly aimed at repairing the broken relationship between the Counseling Center and students,” he said.
They hope that their ideas will put pressure on the administration to commit to different services that can help improve health resources on campus.
Before senators even began attending online classes last semester, one of their greatest issues was already taking shape: the public outcry surrounding social Greek life on campus. After calls over the summer of 2020 from the student body to address the problems posed by social Greek organizations, most senators are calling for change and are proposing alternative actions.
Durham stressed that one of his goals during his time in SG is to push for legislation combating the sexual assault trends recognizable within social Greek life.
“We are trying to do whatever it takes to implement legislation that will get rid of the racism, classism, and sexual assault that plagues the AU community,” Durham said.
A few of the senators have been working to develop a replacement for social Greek life in the form of a “residential college system.” The residential college system would assign students to a certain dorm building and they would be a part of that community throughout their time at the University.
“We plan on trying to advocate this idea to the administration, student body and relevant student organizations in order to create a new place on campus where the community can become more tangible,” Easwar said. However, the plan is still in its early stages.
Many senators stated that their primary responsibilities are to listen and respond to the needs of the campus community.
“Our job is outreach, engaging the community, hearing as many people as possible and then turning those ideas that we’ve been given into ideas that can actually be implemented,” Rubin said.
Some senators acknowledged that there have been issues around communication and clarity when it comes to how SG is run.
“We could always improve communications, both internally and with other campus organizations,” Powers said. “We can only get work done if we are being honest and open with each other, making sure we do not close ourselves off.”
Plans to improve transparency and communication include increasing social media outreach and updating online resources.
Senator Andrew Useche said that in addition to increasing transparency, he would like to address bureaucracy within the senate. SG must work on updating its current bylaws to make them more straightforward, both for senators and the student body.
Ishita Jamar, the newly elected Speaker of the Senate and a former class of 2023 senator, said that this group has already surpassed her expectations. They’re bold with questions and ideas, and quickly moved away from supporting the status quo, she said.
“This new group of senators is very proactive and devoted to doing their job and doing it right,” Jamar said. “They are great about using their resources to find the best solutions possible.”