Saint Mary’s SGA president reflects on semester of community-building during time of administrative transition
Maeve Filbin | Thursday, December 12, 2019
When seniors Terra Nelson and Olivia Allen stepped into their respective roles as Saint Mary’s Student Government Association (SGA) president and vice president for the 2019-2020 academic year, they brought a lot of big ideas to the table. They campaigned on a platform that included installing printers in every dorm, opening Regina parking lot to students, expanded Munch Money use and a weekly organized “This Week at Saint Mary’s” email.
Though administrators encouraged Nelson and Allen to continue thinking of innovative solutions for student issues, they also offered them a healthy dose of perspective, Nelson said.
“I think in the beginning, it can be a little bit discouraging when you’re working with [the administration], and they’re saying, like, ‘Hey, great idea, but it’s not going to work out,’” she said. “There are really good reasons that you can’t do those things. I think from our perspective, we come in, and we’re like, ‘Well, how hard can it be?’ There are so many things that you need to consider. They have been so helpful and given us room to dream big, and also reining it in and … calling our attention to things that we might not see. I’m really thankful, always grateful for that added feedback and mentorship.”
Moving forward with the platform proved to be more difficult than expected, Nelson said, with unexpected layers of bureaucracy and precedents making it challenging to enact more far-reaching goals. Despite these hurdles, Nelson said she and Allen are extremely pleased with the accomplishments they’ve made thus far and look forward to continued momentum going into the spring semester.
“The one thing I didn’t realize before we stepped into office was how many pieces of the puzzle there are when you have so many committees and so many people to report back to,” Nelson said. “That’s just a lot to manage and then execute. But all in all, I think this semester has gone really well. There are a lot of things that I’m proud of, [and] a lot of things that I think, ‘Man, I hope that we can get that done next semester.’”
Much of this success is owed to the SGA committee members who have worked diligently to carry out the platform ideas introduced by the executives, Nelson said. The Community Committee has been especially active this semester, she said, making improvements to first-year orientation and advancing plans to reinstall Clarissa Dalloway’s Coffeehouse as a student-space on campus.
“When we started this year, just kind of looking over first-year orientation, we wanted to make it more community-oriented, and we wanted to make it more fun,” Nelson said. “We had community events for the first years, and it was just so awesome to see them gather in McCandless on that first night of school, hang out and eat cookies together.”
Improvements were also made to pre-Domerfest activities, Nelson said, resulting in resounding approval from both first-years and those who have witnessed previous years of programming.
“Everyone said, ‘It’s the best that we’ve seen it,’ which was the goal,” she said. “We want people to look back on that first week and say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of good that was done.’”
The first event in Dalloway’s, free post-game snacks for Saint Mary’s students returning from the Nov. 23 Notre Dame vs. Boston College football game, as well as other on-campus activities were well-attended and received, Nelson said. This level of turnout is an essential part of the Nelson-Allen platform which ran on the core value of “community,” she said.
“The turnout for everything has been really, really strong, and that’s not something that I’ve ever seen,” Nelson said. “I’m proud of that.”
The Mission Committee has also contributed to community building on campus, both by scheduling rotating masses followed by snacks in McCandless, Regina and Le Mans, and by posting a list of different locations to practice non-Catholic faiths, Nelson said.
Making decisions in a time of transition
Similar to former SGA president Madeline Corcoran and vice president Kathy Ogden, whose term coincided with the resignation of former College President Jan Cervelli, Nelson and Allen are experiencing some shifts within the administration.
The Presidential Search Committee has spent the past weeks narrowing down a field of potential candidates to fill the office of Interim President Nancy Nekvasil, who will vacate the position in 2020. Additionally, vice president for student affairs Karen Johnson announced in November that she will be retiring at the culmination of this semester.
“It’s difficult when there is so much transition within the College to really push some of these big things,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t hinder us, but it makes the conversations different because we don’t know who’s taking over next year, next semester, in terms of our vice president of student affairs, and that’s big.”
Despite changes in leadership, Nelson said she feels confident about the way SGA has performed this past semester and hopes Saint Mary’s students are noticing.
“I think that SGA this year is in a really healthy place,” she said. “I hope that the student body sees that.”
Though SGA has found success in many areas, they faced some backlash from students after announcing they would be collaborating with Residence Hall Association (RHA) to plan the annual Navy Ball instead of hosting a fall formal.
“For me, I feel like a lot of times [students] just see the really negative side,” she said. “A great example of this was when we planned the Navy Ball, and that was because formal was off the table. So we made Navy Ball different, and we tried so hard to revamp it, and honestly, it was a phenomenal turnout. I was shocked. In terms of safety, I couldn’t have been more pleased, but … it’s hard for me to see all the positive when you get that one really angry email.”
If there is any negative feedback, Nelson said, it could be the result of a disconnect between the student body and the members of SGA, who experience different perspectives of the work the group does on campus.
“I know that SGA is in a healthy place, and I think that we’re working really hard, but again, from the outside looking in, you never know,” she said. “That’s something that I am not quite sure how we can fully address. I think that transparency is really important, but it’s also really important to just be professional.”
SGA will continue to be intentional in addressing each student concern they receive, Nelson said.
“I feel that there’s definitely work to be done,” Nelson said. “I think we’re in a very healthy spot. I know that we can improve. I’m curious to see what that looks like, and I’d love student feedback on that as well.”
Stepping into the spring semester, Nelson said she and Allen hope to complete several projects that have been in the works since the start of the academic year, including the reinvigoration of Dalloway’s Coffeehouse.
“I would love to see Dalloway’s become something by the end of our term,” Nelson said. “And that’s something that I think is really important because I think that it helps with so many of these things that we talk so much about when we talk about community, … when we talk about keeping girls on campus because it’s safer. How are we fostering that? We can’t just expect them to hang out in the McCandless first floor lounge, right? So I’d love to see that happen. I think that we have a really good chance of seeing that happen.”
Additionally, Nelson said SGA hopes to continue promoting community through other channels, including a preview day for first-year students from underrepresented groups.
“I’ve worked … on the past preview days, but I’d really love to see one just for our minority students, and even talk about what that looks like in terms of recruiting diversely, but also retaining our diverse students. Equity is a huge problem on this campus that I don’t yet know how to address,” she said. “We’ve had lots of great conversations about that. I’d love to see progress in terms of equity.”
Student Government Association has made improvements in several areas of student life, largely due to the hard work and creative thinking from its committees. Nelson and Allen have pushed to address the core value of community on campus, and the high event attendance shows that these efforts have been largely successful. When faced with criticism for decisions made within SGA, Nelson and Allen could benefit from heightened transparency and more direct communication with the students. In the upcoming semester, the pair should have a greater presence on campus, either by attending committee events or taking leadership of future initiatives.