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UCS leadership candidates face off at debate

Mental health resources, council structure, diversity support fuel debate for UCS presidential hopefuls

Candidates for leadership positions on the Undergraduate Council of Students tackled the council’s role as a conduit between students and the administration, mental health resources and diversity support at a debate Thursday night in a packed Salomon 001.

Mental health emerged as a major topic of concern for all three candidates for the UCS presidency.

In response to a question about alternative ways of expanding campus mental health resources besides eliminating the seven-session limit at Counseling and Psychological Services, UCS presidential candidates suggested a host of ideas.

“Part of the communication we have around mental health is we say ‘mental health’ and think that means the same thing for everybody, and it doesn’t,” said Justice Gaines ’16, a UCS general body member and a member of the Task Force on Sexual Assault. “We need to have more specific resources” for students struggling with anxiety, eating disorders and questions of sexuality, Gaines said.

Sazzy Gourley ’16, UCS vice president and chair of the UCS Outreach and Advocacy Committee, said available resources and the role of the Mental Health Community Council should be communicated more clearly to students. “The first point of access can be vastly more approachable,” he said, referencing his current OAC project of overhauling the CAPS website. Gourley also called for “more avenues for advocacy” in order to “change the ways we talk about this subject.”

Gourley told The Herald after the debate that if he had been given more time, he would have liked to discuss increasing the diversity of CAPS staff, clarifying leave-taking policy for students and providing more support in the external referral process once a student reaches the seven-session limit.

“It is important to make campus a safe space to discuss mental health without stigma,” said Zachary Nelkin ’17, a former UCS general body member. Nelkin criticized President Christina Paxson’s P’19 strategic plan for prioritizing “buildings over students … when it’s not willing to spend money on mental health.”

Anna Pierobon ’16, who is from Italy, asked the presidential candidates how they would support international students’ mental health after Hyoun Ju Sohn GS, a first-year doctoral student from Korea, jumped to his death from the Sciences Library Tuesday.

“We have to make sure our international students, based on where they’re from, are getting the proper attention they need,” Gaines said, adding that support cannot end with international orientation.

Gourley agreed that international orientation needs to be “completely rehauled” in terms of mental health and augmented with “follow-up” support.

Nelkin said he “would like to hear from international students” about what specific support they need.

The presidential candidates also debated the council’s role as a conduit for student activists.

UCS “shouldn’t be a conduit — it should be an advocate,” Gaines said, adding that the council needs to “make sure student voices are not only heard, but listened to.”

“I’m a gender-queer student of color. This is not only something that I’m running on a platform — this is my life here. This is a lot of students’ lives here,” Gaines said.

Nelkin said he would like to include student activist groups in UCS meetings. “Though you may have the right to come to UCS and speak, no one ever does,” he said. “It is critically important that we make UCS … into more of a town hall.”

“It is essential UCS takes active stances on important campus issues” and “critical (that) we’re doing so in ways that support all students on campus,” Gourley said, noting that he helped write a Herald guest opinions column by UCS about mental health this semester.

“As it stands, UCS is a mostly unelected body,” Nelkin said. The council “fundamentally has to be a democratic body” in order to be representative of undergraduate sentiment, he said, adding that he has rewritten a full constitution for the council. Nelkin advocated “the ability to recall members of UCS if they are not performing their duties as they were intended to.”

Support for students and faculty members of color also drove much discussion among the presidential hopefuls.

Gaines criticized Paxson’s stated goal of doubling the percentage of underrepresented minorities in the faculty in the next decade. “Doubling is not nearly enough when we have 45 percent students of color on this campus,” Gaines said. Gaines would seek student input on diversifying the faculty and would also advocate increasing administrator diversity.

One of Gourley’s “main priorities” this year is gathering student input on the Diversity Action Plan and finding “concrete objectives … because this is how we will make an end goal happen,” he said.

Fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have been “rightly criticized for having one of the least diverse faculty of any field of study,” said Nelkin, an engineering student. “It’s not just an issue of justice — it’s directly affecting experiences that students have on campus” and their abilities to perform well in class, he added.

Earlier in the debate, Alana Bhatla ’16, UCS media director and former UCS treasurer, and Ryan Lessing ’17, chair of the UCS Admissions and Student Services committee, went head-to-head for the UCS vice presidency.

In response to questions about the council’s low member retention rate and “top-heavy” image, Bhatla and Lessing critiqued the structure of UCS.

Bhatla said she hopes to collect more student feedback through open forums and an online emphasis. The council could “transition into being more of a group that is friendly and welcoming for all” and have “more of a family community setting than a business setting,” she said, adding that the Rhode Island School of Design hosts community dinners where students can directly offer feedback to their student government.

“UCS definitely has a problem relaying its accomplishments to students — it is extremely hard to hold UCS accountable right now,” Bhatla said. To increase accountability, Bhatla suggested that the council release a monthly agenda and summary of its projects, adding that the council does not try hard enough to get feedback on its fall agenda or to follow up with the student body at the end of the year.

Lessing reiterated the need to increase student feedback. What to Fix Brown, the council’s online feedback form that Lessing spearheaded, “was a great start, but we need to go beyond that,” he said.

“The fundamental problem is that general body members are not finding UCS a rewarding experience,” Lessing said. “The cycle of general body members being all freshmen and then quitting is not sustainable — it kills us in terms of institutional knowledge,” he said. Creating a council of more evenly distributed class years is “the first step” in creating “a more representative body,” he added.

The UCS Elections Board did not include candidates for leadership positions on the Undergraduate Finance Board in the debate, as Dakotah Rice ’16 and Faith Moses ’18 will run unopposed for chair and vice chair of the board, respectively.

The debate was co-sponsored by the UCS Elections Board and The Herald. UCS Elections Board Chair Heather Sabel ’17 and Herald Editor-in-Chief Maxine Joselow ’16 moderated the debate.

Students can vote online April 7–9.



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