By Katherine Kvitavsky, student, UW-La Crosse
Where I go to school, everyone is involved in something. From intramural sports to marching band to diversity organizations, students in La Crosse are known for being active and engaged. It is, in part, because of this culture of service that I chose to be involved in our city government, representing a mostly-student district on the City of La Crosse Common Council. A year ago, I had just begun my first semester at UW-L. A year ago, if someone told me that I soon would be an elected official, I wouldn’t have believed them. But here I am, now entering my second year as a student, my first year as a resident assistant, and serving as a city council member.
I first chose to get involved on campus by representing students who lived in my residence hall in our campus Residence Hall Association (RHA). My job, along with my co-representative, was to be a voice for the 400 students living in my building. This experience was unique because it challenged me to think about policy and how it affected not only students living in my building but also all students on campus. Additionally, representing students in this capacity gave me valuable leadership skills, knowledge, and experience to represent them in our City Council, and I can’t give my time working with RHA enough credit for the impact it had on me.
As I meet and work with more people, I constantly am amazed at how driven they are and the awesome, inspirational things of which they have been a part. One of the many people I have had the privilege of meeting and working with is Karin Johnson, who I first met in a public administration class during my first semester at UW-L. Representing the campus area on our county board, I first remember being impressed with Karin’s physically being in the position, but as I became more familiar with her, what really struck me was how energetic and passionate she was about local issues.
One day in spring, Karin asked me to take a look at the open City Council position. The person who had the position before me was also a UW-L student who was graduating that year, and had resigned in April, leaving a space in the Council to be filled by appointment to fill out his term ending in April 2013. I was on the fence for a while about whether or not to apply for the position, especially considering the time commitments—trying to balance being a student, resident assistant, and council member is something that is still challenging for me at times. Additionally, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I hadn’t had much experience working with a city outside of the classroom; there was an obvious learning curve associated with the position. After some serious self-evaluation and encouragement from my peers and others, I decided to submit my resume to the Council. I was granted an interview, and then was appointed in May to the position.
As a council member, I attend a lot of meetings. I never understood the concept of “government work being done in committees” until I was assigned to the Finance and Personnel committee, where we work on, examine, and discuss proposed legislation and then bring it to the rest of the council. Additionally, I work with members of the community, non-profit groups, city employees, and other council members to shape policy for the community as well as policy specific to my district. I love the job because I get to see my and others’ efforts come to fruition, and there are tangible results from action the city takes, which is why I am running in April to keep on the council after my appointment officially ends.
When Karin suggested I take a look at the open position, I was skeptical. At first I questioned, “why me?” when the real question should have been, “why not me?” I think so often young people, especially young women, have difficulty quantifying and articulating their skills—not only to themselves but also to others. Simply put, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for not only what we have done and are doing, but also for what we will be achieving in the future. Even if we don’t have an exact picture of our future, it is important to be energized and confident in what we will achieve.
But with our opportunities and successes comes a great responsibility. Just as I didn’t become involved without the encouragement of others, future leaders also need to have that same support. Just as Karin extended her hand to me, I cannot leave without extending my hands to others.
At times being a council member, in combination with being a student and a resident assistant, is stressful. There are times when I wish I could press “pause” and take the day—or week—off. But the rewards of this job far outweigh the stressful times, and I am constantly energized by the work I am a part of because I truly feel I am making a positive difference in the community. What I learned in this past year, the thing that has been proven to me one hundred times over, the best “tip for success” I can offer, is that there are so many opportunities to be taken advantage of if we can take ownership of the fact that we are worthy of them as well as the challenges they present. It may not always be easy, but it will be worth the effort.
Originally from Neenah, WI, Katherine Svitavsky is a student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse perusing degrees in Political Science and Public Administration. She currently represents the 5th district of the city of La Crosse on the city’s Common Council, and is also a Resident Assistant on campus. In her spare time, Katherine enjoys kayaking, hiking, reading, and listening to music.