University-wide elections began Feb. 25, and the race for Student Council President as well as the races for the seat’s attendant cabinet are uncontested. Two teams initially emerged with hopes of being elected. Third-year College student Hunter Wagenaar, third-year Architecture student Veronica Merril and second-year College student Ilyas Saltani were campaigning on the same ticket against third-year College student Ellen Yates, third-year College student Shefalika Prasad and third-year Curry student Darynha Gnep for the positions of Student Council president, vice president for organizations and vice president for administration, respectively. As of Monday night, however, Wagenaar and Merril have announced their withdrawal from the race. In a Facebook post Tuesday night, Saltani announced that he will continue to seek election.
“Empower the Student” — Ilyas Saltani
Despite his running mates dropping out of the race, Saltani wants to sustain their platform and continue their mission of “empowering the student.” He hopes to make Student Council more of an activist platform because he thinks it’s currently very neutral and only focused on putting out legislation.
“I think Student Council has the opportunity to be that medium where we propagate the narrative of student self-governance,” Saltani said. “We will be that platform where we can uplift student voices, empower them, motivate them and give them the tools that they need as well as the resources and connections that they need to push whatever narratives they see within the realm of activism.”
Saltani is currently a representative for the College in Student Council. He is also a director of the Muslim Institute for Leadership and Empowerment, an organization that provides professional development and training for Muslim students and is in the process of establishing a nonprofit called MILE National, which will be an umbrella organization allowing a number of similar leadership programs to be opened at other schools. These experiences have allowed Saltani to understand how the University operates in terms of infrastructure and contributed to his desire to run for VPA, an administrative role.
While Yates, Prasad and Gnep’s platform tries to help students understand how Student Council operates, Saltani is advocating for a complete rewrite of the Student Council Constitution. This doesn’t mean deleting the document entirely but revising it and rewriting bylaws in a way that is more accessible to students.
“You could point to a number of students around Grounds and ask them what Student Council has done for you or ask them what they know about Student Council and probably not get an answer,” Saltani said. “And that's totally valid. We essentially think that this requires a complete rewrite of not only the Constitution of Student Council to ensure that this will, going forward, change, but also a huge reflection on the institution itself — like a critique of how it's set up in general. Because clearly, it's not effectively reaching out to the student body in the way that it should.”
Saltani wants to advocate for the foundation of a student credit union that would allow a disbursement of funds for student organizations that isn’t exclusively reliant on donations or grants. This would make funding more accessible to students and create a standard for all CIOs to equally benefit from. He also hopes to establish a larger student arts fund.
The biggest issue that Saltani believes the University is facing is a lack of support for marginalized communities. He plans on founding a committee on activism that is committed to prioritizing the needs of minority students, students of color and marginalized communities in general. Members would look out for issues around Grounds that are inherently marginalizing and seek out effective ways to tackle them either through protests, writing documents, or directly reaching out to administration. The committee would also denounce practices such as the watchlist, legacy admissions and early decision that benefit certain groups over others.
“Many of these radical changes won't be seen overnight, and it also won’t happen with individuals, it's going to require a mass effort,” Saltani said. “We think that by Student Council embodying this persona, that will be the mass effort that we need to not only have students engage with Student Council more when they see that they're actually fighting for things that matter to them, but it will also be a platform that is a direct bridge to administration where it’s taken credibly [and] regarded credibly by administration.”
“A Renewed Commitment” — Ellen Yates, Shefalika Prasad and Darynha Gnep
Third-year College student Ellen Yates, who is currently vice president for administration, is running for Student Council president. Having been on Student Council since her first year, she has also served as Chair of the Student Life Committee, Student Dining Advisory Board, and Student Legal Services Advisory Board, as well as Chief of Cabinet.
“I oversee all the administrative apparatus of Student Council — things like the budget, marketing, outreach, relations with alumni,” Yates said. “This insight has really shown me the potential for good that Student Council has, but I'm also highly aware of its shortcomings, and so a lot of our platform points are centered on sort of addressing those.”
The current vice president for organizations, third-year College student Shefalika Prasad, is running for re-election. Previously, she was Chair of the CIO Consultants Committee, as well as the President of LabShorts — a short film CIO. She said she enjoys working with CIOs and wants to complete the projects that she has already started this semester.
Third-year Curry student Darynha Gnep, who is currently the Chair of the Student Life Committee, is running for vice president for administration. In addition to being Chair of the Student Dining Advisory Board and Co-Chair of the Transfer Resources Committee, he was also Logistics Coordinator at the AL1GN@UVA 2019 Conference, a student-led conference series dedicated to serving first-generation and low-income students.
“Admittedly people don’t really like to say they like logistics, but that’s part of my ability to contribute to VPA,” Gnep said. “It’s just being able to juggle all the many internal apparatuses we have going on to make sure that internally we’re running as efficiently as possible, then the external goals and our outward facing persona, but also our initiatives and policies are going to impact students at a greater level.”
Yates, Prasad and Gnep are running on the same ticket under a campaign titled “A Renewed Commitment.” While “commitment” stems from their devotion to Student Council, “renewed” speaks to their broader plans of creating change through the themes of presence, partnership and accountability.
“One of the things that we want to emphasize is our recognition that students have, in some capacity, lost faith in the institution of student council to do important, tangible work,” Yates said. “Our renewed commitment is a renewed commitment to broad institutional change. That is reaching outward towards students, towards being an ally, towards being a resource sharer, rather than sort of an internal focus which is what I think past administrations have done.”
Their platform is centered around student engagement, which they believe to be the most pressing issue faced by the University. To address this, they organized their platform around three main planks — presence, partnership and accountability.
The theme of presence is to make resources and services more accessible to students. This includes implementing free printing, adding increased study spaces during Alderman Library renovations, opening a Student Financial Services office in Newcomb Hall, increasing the availability of after-hours on-Grounds parking and instituting a no-exam policy on election days. They are committed to supporting student organizations like DREAMers to increase matriculation of undocu+ students and translating legal and financial documents into Spanish to support the Latinx community.
“There's a huge emphasis on equity and accessibility in this sort of plank of a platform,” Yates said. “So things like bringing back the Community Arts pantry to support our students that are low income, who don’t have the money to invest in quality art supplies. It would function like a food pantry for supplies.”
Additionally, they also want to make mental health resources more accessible for students through expanding and increasing the Next Steps Fund, a fund that provides two free off-Grounds counseling sessions for students who need to go to long-term counseling but can’t afford to. Currently, O’Hill staff have to pray in their offices, so they also plan to open up a prayer space in O’Hill.
At the center of the partnership plank is the Inter-Organization Resource Coalition model which is intended to allow different coalitions to meet regularly and connect with the resources they need to create change. Other initiatives under partnership include increasing co-sponsorship opportunities, increasing the diversity of voices on forums and increasing information-sharing between councils. One thing they’re also pushing for is partnership with graduate students.
“The funniest part, I think, of [Student Council] is that we are primarily undergraduate membership … but we are for all schools, so we are also there to help graduate students,” Prasad said. “They don't really need storage in Newcomb because they're not usually around here, and they don't really need space reservation because they've got their own schools to do that in, but what they truly do need is funding for things that their schools don't give them.”
According to their full platform, accountability is about being transparent to the student body. This involves receiving consistent feedback to ensure that Student Council is meeting students’ needs, requesting Student Council legislation and reworking SpeakUp U.Va., an online platform where students can voice their concerns about the community, so that it is more accessible and user-friendly. They also want to hold the administration accountable for the watchlist and legacy admissions practices. Through the watchlist practice, the University grants certain applicants advantages such as an additional review of their application due to their connections with major donors. Legacy admissions favor students who have connections with alumni, a practice that Yates, Prasad and Gnep want to lobby the administration to abolish.
Due to the number of students that are involved in CIOs on Grounds, Yates, Prasad and Gnep see clarifying the CIO appropriations process as a priority so that organizations can understand how to best use the money allocated to them. Through their proposed 1945 Capital Campaign, they want to create an unrestricted endowment fund for Student Council to use more freely.
“One of the unmet needs that we see is that students — and especially multicultural CIOs — have events that SAF can't support them on,” Gnep said. “And that's where our capital campaign will essentially help mitigate that issue, in terms of having an unrestricted pot of money that we can use internally for our current issues, but also that we can help spread around in terms of events that we know are going to be impactful to the student body.”
Last year, all of the College representatives in Student Council ran uncontested. The positions of vice president for administration and vice president for organizations were also uncontested, and voter turnout in the Student Council presidential election was 12.6 percent, down from 18.8 percent the previous year. According to Yates, when students don’t vote for their representatives, representatives don’t feel accountable to students as constituents, which in turn causes students to become frustrated and have no reason to engage with Student Council.
Yates, Gnep, and Prasad’s campaign strives to increase student engagement so that representatives will be able to make decisions that truly reflect the will of their students.
“Engagement is so incredibly important, but we also recognize it's our responsibility to be showing students why,” Yates said. “This is where it all comes back to the renewed commitment. We are trying to regain students' trust that we can be a partner, we can be a resource to them, and we can make tangible change in their lives.”
Correction: A previous version of this article's graphic misspelled VPO candidate Shefalika Prasad's name. The graphic has been edited to reflect the correct spelling.