Revitalizing Student Government at UMBC

[Re-posted with permission from the Center for Democracy and Citizenship website. ]

As a United Nations student delegate in high school, Yasmin Karimian wanted to inspire others to take action on the many problems she saw in the world. But it was a daunting task, and one she didn’t feel prepared for.

When she started college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2007, Karimian joined the Student Government Association (SGA). It was an exciting time. SGA was launching an annual contest called Prove It!, which awards $50,000 “to a novel and innovative project, service, or event on the UMBC campus that makes everyone proud to be a member of the community.”

By the next year, however, SGA was falling apart, Karimian says. “People had no connections. No one wanted to do anything.”

That fall, Karimian read The Citizen Solution in a civic engagement course. Then she joined her faculty advisor and another SGA member at a conference in Minneapolis launching the Civic Agency Initiative. The Civic Agency Initiative, organized by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, brings together a national cohort of more than a dozen schools working together as they explore how to better integrate democratic practice while deepening campus-community connections.

Karimian says she left the conference energized by faculty and students from across the country who wanted to do something on their campuses, and by the organizing strategies she learned, including something called “one-to-ones.”

A “one-to-one” meeting is a tool for initiating or building relationships and understanding someone’s self-interest. Although Karimian says she left the conference “not really believing in one-to-ones,” she thought it was worth giving them a try to understand why SGA members weren’t showing up for meetings.

Over spring semester, Karimian and four other SGA leaders did more than 50 one-to-ones with other members. Then they came back to the group and talked about the experience. Some members didn’t get the organizing strategy behind the meetings, she says, but at least it helped reconnect them to the association.

At the end of the year, Karimian ran for SGA president and won. She wants all SGA members to understand and use one-to-ones, and worked with other students to create a space in the SGA office for holding these meetings. It’s more than symbolic, Karimian says, “It’s used a lot.”

Over the past several months, there has been a cultural shift, too. In the past, SGA saw itself as fighting against the university on behalf of students, says Karimian. Now the organization is working with faculty on issues such as course drop dates, and telling administrators “this is how you can work with us” rather than asking permission. “It brings a lot of legitimacy to SGA,” concludes Karimian.

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