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A Call to Student Leaders across the Nation

By Yasmin Karimian, ADP Intern and Student, UMBC

Edited by Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

Across the nation, you can find student governments in all types of colleges and universities. Many of us involved in student government have struggled to get our feet on the ground and to make our voices loud enough to be heard. It is time for student governments to see their role as expanding each student’s civic capacity on campus, rather than acting as an entity that simply mimics federal or state governments, bogged down by Robert’s Rule and red tape.

When I enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), one of the first things that I did was join the Student Government Association. I did this not because I felt that I had to, or because my parents told me to get involved, but because I felt that student government was the logical organization to join if I wanted to affect change on campus. I quickly became deeply connected and learned a great deal about shared governance on campus. Yet it was extremely difficult to create change, unless the SGA were the ones to be the source of funding. At first we blamed the administration, thinking they simply did not want to deal with students. Then we blamed our leadership within student government because they only wanted to beef up their resumes. We also blamed the student body- because they were apathetic; our school newspaper- they were liars; our student events board- they did not actually want students to come to their events; and anyone else we could point our fingers at.

After playing this game for two years, a few members of SGA wondered if it was us that needed to change, not everybody else. Along with another member, I had the opportunity to attend the Civic Agency Institute, sponsored by ADP and the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, where I learned community organizing skills. I began to use these techniques such as one-to-one’s, public evaluations, and in general, a more open, inviting atmosphere. It stopped being a matter of “are you going to make the cut to be in the student government,” but rather “where can you fit in this organization.”

Last year, our membership soared, with over 130 members. Our enthusiasm increased and during our student elections more than 25% of our student body voted, the highest voter turnout in the history of UMBC. More projects are being completed than ever before, in reality-more than I can keep track of. We now work with our fellow students instead of simply for them; breaking out of the “client/service provider” model of politics as usual that Harry Boyte often critiques. Students are even beginning to feel a sense of power and respect. We are no longer seen as the misbehaved children on campus, but legitimate contributors to our campus community and culture. Sure, this is an abbreviated version of the story and there are far more challenges and accomplishments, but I am also sure that now is the time for student leaders to re-envision the function and the ways of student governments across the nation. Imagine a world where we are all seen as creators of our own communities, how absolutely fantastic would that be? Student governments could be the stepping stones to that world.

Our lifetimes have been filled with glimpses of engagement and ownership within our nation. From the aftermath of 9/11 that led to our nation reconnecting with patriotism and community, Hurricane Katrina and the sense of connection with those in need and in struggle, to recently, standing in our student unions, republicans and democrats, watching the first African-American President be elected, and realizing that our country will never be the same. Yet the glimpses only provide a short-lived sense of euphoria and then we slip back into the lack of engagement with the financial and social pressures of our lives taking over. We as student leaders do have the opportunities to empower those around, through example, through calculated thinking and initiatives; we can be the change our society needs.

Questions for you to consider: What are the ways that student’s voices are heard on your campus?

Are students viewed as partners on campus or customers who are there for simply four years?

Are there things happening on your campus that help empower students to see themselves as civic agents?

How might we work together to empower all stakeholders on campus, and especially students, to see themselves as democratic actors and culture creators on campus?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amazing blog post! You show that inclusive community building can reform politics and create tangible results. Would be interesting to hear your take on how the US government is currently fun.

    I’m starting a nonprofit to help college students come together, develop their leadership capacity and launch their own grassroots initiative to fix a problem in their community. We will provide all the tools and support that students need to run their project efficiently and with the maximum impact. Check it out! I’d love to hear what you think.

    All the best,


    August 28, 2010
  2. Elora Turner #

    Thank you Yasmine for your motivating challenge to student leaders. I’m currently in Cape Town, South Africa where I witnessed and voted in the University of Cape Town (UCT) student council elections. Students felt the same critique and apathy that you described and the campaign strategies of those running was based on the old client model of ‘I can be your voice and fight for you’ instead of how can we work together, utilizing our shared strengths to improve our university. I love how you helped change your student council to an inclusive capacity building focus. That strategy is needed not only by student councils but also between student leaders. On my campus at the University of Minnesota, there is such a competitive feeling between who is the best student-run organization, student groups fighting others for members only to have those members as passive participants instead of transformative co-leaders. So I think the power of one-to-ones and public evaluations can not only help transform the focus of how students can collaboratively organize but also change the competitive individualized culture among our student leaders. I think the best way to overcome the silos of student leadership/organizations is to challenge bridge building between cultures. On my campus there is a huge divide between the culturally focused organizations, international groups and the social change organizations even though all share similar missions to improve our University Community. Rarely is there dialogue between different student groups….unless they ‘’work together’’ for grant funding and afterwards go their own way. There needs to be public space for these student leaders to dialogue and collaborate with each other…and this is where I see a strong role for the student council to network and train students in community organizing skills-especially one-to-ones, power mapping and evaluations-in order to build student capacities on campus.

    Thanks again for challenging me to think about my own role in this transformative process.

    Cheers and keep up your great capacity building work!
    University of Minnesota/University of Cape Town


    September 4, 2010
  3. Thanks for writing this, Yasmin. It’s really sounds like things are improving at UMBC!


    September 7, 2010

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