Student Council released a term report last week highlighting its accomplishments, challenges and ongoing initiatives from the 2019-2020 term — which officially ended April 5 with the transition of leadership from fourth-year College student Ellie Brasacchio to third-year College student Ellen Yates as president.
Brasacchio identified the creation of the Financial Accessibility Committee as one of the most sucessful parts of her 2019-2020 term. The committee, which was formed soon after the term began, is designed to focus on issues of first-generation and low-income students at the University.
Although Brasacchio noted that the committee has not yet produced concrete results, it has laid the groundwork for many projects to be completed during future administrations.
The committee partnered with University Libraries to discover the costs of course materials for students and find a way to mitigate those costs. So far, they have collected 669 in-person and online survey responses finding that one-third of students report the cost of course materials negatively impacts their academic success. The committee plans to continue surveying students in the next term to acquire more diverse data.
In terms of tangible projects, the committee created the First Generation Low Income Coalition to bring together leaders from FGLI-based organizations on Grounds. So far, the coalition includes Student Council, First-Generation/Low-Income Partnership, Hoos First Look, Questbridge and Rise Together, and they are looking to expand.
The committee also donated over $1,000 to Counseling and Psychological Services funds to kick-start the Next Steps Fund which helps cover expenses of getting mental health care outside of CAPS. The committee is still continuing to raise funds by exploring new fundraising avenues for the future.
“All of the projects [the Financial Accessibility Committee] were working on in the past year are still works in progress, but they have made big strides and I think they've done really well for it just being the first year of the committee,” Brasacchio said. “It’s pretty difficult to get a committee off the ground in the first year to produce finished products, so they definitely made some strides with that, and I can’t wait to see what they do with these projects in the next term.”
The global COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shift to online classes at the University interrupted the Financial Accessibility Committee’s ongoing projects, such as the publishing of the “Guide to Being Not-Rich at U.Va.” which was supposed to be released by the end of the term. The committee partnered with FLIP to work on this guidebook of strategies and tips for FGLI students who need help navigating life at the University.
Other committees were impacted by the transition off Grounds as well. The Sustainability Committee, for example, was supposed to have an Earth Week celebration which they will now be conducting virtually. In addition, the Transfer Resources Committee completed a guidebook with various resources to help incoming transfer students adapt to the University. The guide was supposed to launch in person, but now will be released on the Student Council website by the end of the school year.
During the fall, the Council focused on equitable admissions at the University, issuing a statement that denounced the “watch-list” used in the decision making process. Student Council also hosted a forum for students to ask University Provost Liz Magill questions and later the Representative Body passed a resolution “denouncing the University’s practice of providing an additional review to applicants of ‘institutional interest’.”
Brasacchio — who also wrote a column in The Cavalier Daily calling for the University to abolish legacy admissions — noted that although no changes in administrative policy have come yet, she believes this movement put the issue on the mind of University leadership.
“I think we have a unique opportunity right now, as Jim Ryan is relatively still new in his presidency, to put things on his mind and on his agenda,” Brasacchio said. “I think by bringing those issues to light those things did get on his mind and I know he’s thinking through how equitable our admissions processes are, so I think that’s the main accomplishment.”
According to Brasacchio, the main challenge she faced during her presidency was that students often wanted immediate change. She noted that students can be less willing to take on bigger issues because they will take longer to complete.
“We all want to see big changes and big initiatives every single year and every single administration… but I tried to instill this belief in leadership that it’s ok to take on longer term projects,” Brasacchio said. “We don’t have to focus on the short-term ‘what can we finish in a year’, but let's also focus on laying the groundwork for people that come after us.”
When many of the leaders from the past term entered their new positions, they had to learn as they went because they lacked transition resources. Brasacchio noted that in her experience, this made it more difficult to work on projects early on in her term, so she wanted to fix that issue for her administration’s transition to new leadership.
“One of my main goals administratively was to have everyone in leadership have transition documents at the end of the term, and for the most part we have that,” Brasacchio said. “I think that will really help the next administration be able to hit the ground instead of being learning as they go.”
According to Yates, the transition to new leadership has been effective despite the difficulties that have arisen from not being on Grounds. Yates noted that she has had three weeks to prepare for how Student Council will conduct efficiently online and has been able to have transition meetings with Brasacchio and administrators she will be working with.
Similar to how the previous term’s leadership modified their plans to focus on issues arising due to COVID-19, the new administration has shifted its focus as well. The Council’s mutual aid network, which was launched during the previous term, has currently raised over $15,000 and assisted over 200 students, according to Yates.
Student Council has also tackled the issues of non-Federal Work Study student employee compensation and signed onto the “Community Petition to the University of Virginia Administration Regarding COVID-19 Response” created by student activists, which currently has over 1,100 signatures.
“In a crisis situation, the Student Council’s responsibility is to care for and support students so our focus has really been how can we support students at this time,” Yates said.
Yates noted that one of her main goals for the rest of her term is to create a “cultural shift” in the Council to think more outwardly and make resources more accessible.
“We have historically had a very internally focused drive when it comes to what we do,” Yates said. “I want us to be thinking more outwardly, thinking about Student Council’s position as a partner to students, as an organization that provides resources, co-sponsorships [and] opens doors to discussions with the administration.”
In Yates’ view, the Council has lost trust and engagement among students. This causes a “feedback loop” where lack of engagements causes representatives to not know what students need and there is less accountability for elected officers.
“I think one of the things that Student Council struggled with is really being in touch with students,” Yates said. “If we can show through our work to support students we can try to regain their trust and that we want to be an ally in the work that we do.”