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UCS presidential candidates outline social justice-oriented agendas

Garcia ’18, Nelkin ’17, Nguyen ’17 stress diversity, mental health support, international student resources

Candidates for the Undergraduate Council of Students presidency brought the role and mandate of UCS into focus as they squared off on social justice activism, the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, mental health, sexual assault and other hot-button campus issues at the debate Thursday night.

UCS Campus Life Committee Chair Kevin Garcia ’18, UCS general body member Zachary Nelkin ’17 and Viet Nguyen ’17 took part in the discussion, moderated by current UCS President Sazzy Gourley ’16. The candidates each emphasized their unique perspectives and experiences, with all three taking aim at the administration and vowing to hold it accountable for its promises to the student body.

Nguyen elaborated on the importance of recognizing the intersectionality of identities when constructing campus policies. The specific needs of each student must be addressed in a way that is conscious of their multiple identities. “Right now, Brown utilizes a blanket policy,” he said.

Nguyen’s experience communicating with administrators and student groups and drawing up the proposal for the First-Generation Student Center that will open in the Sciences Library this summer makes him uniquely suited for the role of UCS president, he said.

Garcia noted the importance of continued progress on the DIAP and the need for individual departments to take up the issues the plan addresses. Each department should be responsible for initiating and implementing its own action plan, he said.

As a self-identified first-generation, low-income student, concentrating in engineering has been a challenge, Garcia said. “I know what it’s like to go into a STEM field and not feel supported,” he said, adding that it is a “constant uphill battle” for students of color and low-income students to have their needs met in many departments.

Throughout his remarks, Nelkin stressed the need for a reevaulation of the internal structure of UCS. The organization “has a critical role, but without a significant change, we will not be able to fulfill that role,” he said.

On the topic of UCS partnership with social justice activists on campus, the candidates agreed that the council should expand its cooperation and serve as a promotional forum for the work being done by activists. “There’s no room on this campus to opt out of being aware of your surroundings,” Garcia said.

Nguyen noted the University’s “hesitancy” to implement mandatory awareness training for faculty members and criticized the diversity training measures currently in place, specifically the online portions of the faculty Title IX training. “We’ve all taken online courses, and we know they don’t work,” he said.

In an interview with The Herald in February, President Christina Paxson P’19 and Provost Richard Locke P’17 affirmed that opt-in diversity training for faculty members — which the DIAP sets up — has proven more effective than mandatory diversity training.

In addition, departments need to meet standards — regulated by the Office of the Provost and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion — for active work on issues of diversity and inclusion. Departments that do not meet these standards, such as those in which many faculty members choose not to participate in diversity training, could be refused funds to hire new faculty members, Locke said.

The candidates also agreed on the need for increasing resources allotted to mental health support. While all counted abolishing the seven-session limit at Counseling and Psychological Services among their goals, each candidate highlighted a different component of his personal experience.

“For most of my life, I’ve struggled with eating disorders and, recently, significant depression. I don’t talk about that because I’m ashamed and afraid — I fear the stigma,” Nelkin said. Mental health must be treated just like any other health issue, he added.

Nelkin also lambasted the idea that financial issues could be used as a reason for the understaffing of CAPS. “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a budgetary constraint so long as there is enough money to build a giant cake in the shape of University Hall,” he said, referring to one of the celebrations to commemorate the University’s 250th anniversary last year.

“I want intersectional mental health at Brown,” Nguyen said. The experiences of students are very different and require a variety of approaches, he added.

The administration’s alleged lack of consideration for the needs of international students, the topic of the UCS general body meeting Wednesday, garnered harsh criticism from the candidates. Referring to the suicide of an international graduate student last March, “Where was the conversation about intersectionality and suicide?” Garcia asked. The differences in cultural background and difficulties of transition to American life went without attention, he added.

Nelkin stressed the need for a discussion about going need-blind in financial aid for international students, acknowledging the difficulties but demanding action. “If we say that we’re not going to talk about it because it’s unlikely, it will always be unlikely,” he said.

Nguyen called for yearly reevaluation of financial aid packages for international students on aid and emphasized the need for an international student center. “I think I’m the best person to facilitate that discussion because I’ve built a center,” he said, referring to the first-generation center he helped to design.

The new Title IX policy implemented this year must be expanded and streamlined, and the weight of educating the community must not fall entirely on students, the candidates said. “The fact that the majority of (Sexual Assault Prevention and Education) is unpaid is unacceptable,” Nguyen said. “It can’t just fall on the three students on the Oversight and Advisory Board,” Garcia added.

During the question-and-answer session, Austin Lessin ’19 asked the candidates how they would represent students with whom they fundamentally disagree. Garcia called for direct confrontation. “Sometimes you’re going to have to tell people, ‘This is what makes you a more responsible member of the community,’” he said.

UCS as an institution must “balance away from the president towards the general body,” Nelkin said. It would function as a more representative institution for all students, no matter their viewpoints, if it were structured in such a way, he said.

The debate also featured a question-and-answer session with Tim Ittner ’18, who is running unopposed for UCS vice president. Ittner’s platform stresses the creation of departmental DIAPs. “I see concrete ways undergraduates can get involved” in the creation of these plans, he said.

Ittner also noted his experience as chair of the Academic and Administrative Affairs Committee and his work with student groups, proposing increasing partnership with them as part of the overarching UCS strategy.


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