We ran for student government on our values
A conversation with MIT UA leaders (May 27, 2021)
By John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman (Decade Ahead Project)
“We were elected in May 2020,” says Danielle Geathers, president of the MIT undergraduate student government. “Our platform was written with Covid in mind,” she explains, ‘“although we did not have any idea how [covid] would develop or how long it would last. “ Assessing the situation, Danielle pondered how to address radical uncertainty. “A typical student government platform might promise to change the meal plan and make dorms better,” she says with an impish smile on her face. Recognizing the severity of the challenges ahead, the student leadership searched for guiding principles to help them navigate uncertain times: “We ran for student government on our values: unity, equity and authenticity.”
By tradition, the president and vice president of the MIT Undergraduate Association (UA) run for office based on an announced platform, with additional student government officers confirmed after the election. We talked together with president Danielle Geathers, officer on governance Fiona Chen, and treasurer Kevin Wesel. Danielle is a Mechanical Engineering rising senior who is also active in the Black Student’s Union; Kevin Wesel is a rising senior majoring in Biology and co-president of the MIT Consulting Group (with minors in Economics and Public Policy); and Fiona Chen is an outgoing senior majoring in economics and mathematics who co-founded MIT Students Against War.
“We ran for student government on our values: unity, equity and authenticity.”
Starting in spring 2020 and continuing through the 2020–21 academic year, MIT administrators relied on the undergraduate student government and its graduate student counterpart. The role of student government was “drastically transformed” during the pandemic, the three leaders tell us. Before the pandemic, prior student governments had limited opportunities to reach administrators. “But this year, the administrators were having so many meetings where they were being asked for student perspectives, we were constantly being asked to share our perspectives,” Fiona says. “Administrators were like ‘we’re facing this huge problem, how can we get everyone’s perspective on this?’” The group also tells us how their interaction with other students changed during the pandemic. “We had to do more engagement to figure out where students were at.” With pride, they reflect that “the relationship between the UA and admin became stronger and our relationship with the student body became stronger too.”
Putting their commitment to unity into action, the UA repeatedly worked to “come up with a solution as a community.” They spoke to many students, sent out surveys and organized charrettes. Referring to a commercial workflow platform, “We tried to use this thing called Monday,” they recall. “It was a big fail; it was really impossible to get people to fill it out.” More successfully, a student hackathon produced a number of ideas that were communicated to the administration and ultimately funded. What else surfaced from students?, we ask. “Lots of students weren’t doing well. There were huge concerns about how people were handling the pandemic and whether they had access to resources to learn properly.” The UA’s outreach to students also produced other insights: initially the UA was going to push to eliminate grades, but they learned that many students wanted grades recorded for their applications to graduate schools. The UA also learned that MIT’s Covid grant did not adequately fund low-income students who usually got a housing refund. The UA pitched in and got this changed. These examples “highlight how little changes can drastically affect people’s lives and how important equity is.”
Continuing the discussion of their second core value, equity, the UA leaders talk about how they want diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) integrated in all of MIT’s future activities. “There’s a difference of understanding DEI as structural issues as opposed to something you can address through a few small fixes,” Danielle says. “Often universities address the small fixes, a little late,” Fiona continues, “like [instituting] a training.” The UA officers advocate a more fundamental approach, specifically: “Looking at the issues at the root and making sure equity is engrained in all the policies and how they function as a university.” Their clear advice to the MIT administration is that “if you do want diversity to be at the forefront, … invite the diversity officer into the room when making the preliminary decisions.” Giving everyone a seat at the table is central to the UA’s approach, citing also the student “push to have a first generation and low income office so that there can be someone representing that community.”
In their commitment to authenticity, the student leaders point to a disconnect in expectations and ask MIT to offer more opportunities for social impact and civic engagement. They point out that in the messaging to high school students and their parents, “college admissions stresses all this community service to get in.” However, the emphasis on service seems to disappear after admission. “Once you are in, it’s like stamped that you have done that.” The UA leaders see this disconnect in classes, internships, research projects, and job fairs. “If classes aren’t giving examples of social impact, there’s a disconnect,” they tell us. Moving the conversation to internships, an important summer activity for many students, the UA leaders say that “MIT needs to give people opportunities to do things they want,” but “it’s tough to find social impact opportunities so people end up applying to tech companies for internships instead.” To illustrate the point, one of the leaders tells us: “I came into MIT wanting to make an impact on poverty, but I had so much difficulty finding internships on that; I went to the career fair and only found tech companies.” Fiona continues this theme in talking about her research assistantship: “I like doing research, but when I talk about stuff outside of academic research, my professor makes it clear that I should be spending less time on that.” Summarizing, the leaders draw a parallel with DEI. “In the same way we were talking about DEI being an add-on,” the leaders lament that many at MIT “tend to think of service as an add-on” too.
“Our values stayed the same. Our depth of understanding how important they are changed”
As the UA looks towards the fall of 2021 and Danielle’s second term as UA president, we ask whether unity, equity and authenticity capture their aspirations for the year ahead. They answer by telling us about their values and their ambition for change. “Our values stayed the same. Our depth of understanding how important they are changed,” Danielle says. “Unity and cohesion within the student government are really important” and we “have to consistently think about equity at every step.” The UA leaders stress social impact and civic engagement, as well as authenticity when dealing with people in positions of power. They want to make sure that students have transparency about the administration’s decisions and the basis for those decisions. In all of these views, they are anxious to see change now. “Change before was slow, but this year change had to be fast. There’s going to be an expectation for faster change moving forward,” they continue. This past year “demonstrated quick change is at the top of mind for a lot of students.” Clearly, these student leaders and many other students are going to expect rapid and lasting change in the ways universities approach their students’ values and their central concerns of DEI, social impact, and civic engagement.