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Outgoing Student Council president and vice presidents reflect on their term

Ellen Yates, Darynha Gnep and Shefalika Prasad will leave office this week

<p>Yates mentioned that current governance at the University fails to recognize the role of individual and group grassroots action and activism.&nbsp;</p>

Yates mentioned that current governance at the University fails to recognize the role of individual and group grassroots action and activism. 

Ellen Yates, Student Council president and fourth-year College student, Darynha Gnep, vice president for administration and fourth-year Education student and Shefalika Prasad, vice president for organizations, and fourth-year College student discussed their time on the executive board of Student Council this past year. The three reflected upon accomplishments during their terms as well as hopes for the new administration. 

The current administration will be succeeded by third-year College student Abel Liu, second-year College student Cecilia Cain, and second-year College student Ryan Cieslukowski as president, VPA and VPO, respectively, during their transition ceremony on April 11. 

Yates, Gnep and Prasad ran on the same ticket last year under their campaign, “A Renewed Commitment, which focused on student engagement and institutional change through presence, partnership and accountability. However, Yates said that many of their planned changes were turned upside down before they could even take office. In the transition period just before their administration assumed office and only a week after last year’s Student Council elections, the University transitioned online due to the pandemic. 

“A lot of the sort of long-term projects that we'd been having to work on were no longer feasible because we either didn't have the time or because resources were going elsewhere, you know, as was appropriate,” Yates said. “I think a lot of our work, especially in the beginning of the term, focused a lot on crisis management.”

Some of those planned projects included expanding study spaces and after-hours parking on Grounds as well as providing off-Grounds counseling services.

Beginning in March 2020, Student Council worked with the University administration to lobby for resources and support to support the student body as it faced growing numbers of academic, financial and personal issues. The team supported Young Democratic Socialists of America at U.Va. and the First Generation/Low Income Partnership in advocating that the credit/general credit/no credit grading option be offered in the fall semester, ensured housing was available to students in need and supported international students when their legal status was in jeopardy

Additionally, this term introduced two new committees in Student Council — the International Student Affairs Committee, which advocates for international students who have traditionally been underrepresented in the community and governance organizations, and the Data Science Committee, which analyzes data on issues pertinent to student life such as surveys on the effects of tuition increases.

“Student Council has access to resources and information that a lot of the student body doesn't, and we have a role to play in terms of making that data and information available to students,” Yates said.

Prasad is proud of being able to conduct the biannual student activities fairs online, although she felt as though there was not a lot of room on her end, time-wise, to plan new things. She said that the participation of students and contracted independent organizations in this new online platform was encouraging. 

“I think that was nice having an online fair –– brand new, wasn't perfect, but I’m glad that students were able to get involved with CIOs still,” Prasad said. 

There are issues from this past year that Yates, Gnep and Prasad believe will still need work in the upcoming term. Yates said that the University has a lot of work to do in terms of how it compensates students for labor and makes resources accessible and has miles to go in terms of racial equity.

“I think something that has come about because of the pandemic is it's no secret that it has revealed a lot of the inequities that are inherent to the systems and structures that we use, particularly when it comes to income inequality because of the financial circumstances that many found themselves in post-pandemic,” Yates said.

Gnep also addressed the University’s shortcomings in inaccessibility to positions and uncompensated labor in student government organizations. He said that many students — especially first-generation, low-income students — have to pick and choose what aspects of their lives are important to them. Gnep would love to see the University compensate students for all the work they do since a lot of the work done in the name of student self-governance is something an adult at another institution would get a paycheck for. 

Gnep and Cain have already begun to discuss ways Student Council can continue to be more cognizant of the language they use. 

“One of the things that, this year, as a group we really tried to hone in on is not to use the word need or anything that speaks about the student identity or experience in that deficit narrative that's always being presented, and continuing on that path it’s going to be really important as we start challenging the narratives that relate to different identities, social locations or just experience at U.Va. –– to not see someone or just a student group as a monolith,” Gnep said.

Prasad believes that CIOs need a lot more guidance than they currently receive on transitions, student engagement and resources. She wants processes for organizations to be as simple as possible and said there is funding outside of student activities fees that Student Council should continue to try and consolidate.

“I think there's a lot more at U.Va. than students know about,” Prasad said. “It's kind of useless if just Student Council knows.”

Yates mentioned that current governance at the University fails to recognize the role of individual and group grassroots action and activism and is instead “embedded in the notion that there should be representatives that speak for the group.” 

“Not only is this sort of style of engaging students ineffective, but it's also taking away from a lot of the really important work that is being done by individuals and smaller groups and non-instituted groups,” Yates said.

Gnep added that moving forward students should connect with the individuals and groups pushing for collective action at the University that is not rooted in a system or structure because this type of action exists all around Grounds.

All three outgoing members expressed their excitement for the incoming administration. 

Yates said she is excited to see what Liu, Cain and Cieslukowski accomplish in terms of making Student Council more accessible to the student body. One of the incoming administration’s goals is to democratize the organization.

“I think the idea is expanding Student Council to be a place that students engage with us not as sort of like government structure but as a center for resources, a center for advocacy,” Yates said. “I believe the word that the campaign used was bargaining. I think that's going to be incredibly important for the direction that U.Va. students are moving in as well.”

Prasad noted that she is looking forward to Cieslukowski creating a fifth committee under the VPO role –– an Equity and Incentives task force to rework institutionalized biases in allocation of funding and resources. She added that Student Council will have to work with administration to accomplish their funding goals for CIOs.

“We've had quite a lot of student activities fees not used this year, primarily just because people aren't doing events that require that much funding, so that extra funding, I think, will really help the new administration to sort of change things up, do some new things,” Prasad said.

Gnep is looking forward to Cain expanding the VPA role and bringing new energy to the Executive Board of Student Council. Through his conversations with Cain, he has seen the clarity she has in her vision as VPA. He said she has put a lot of forethought into her term and is someone who can change the traditional ways in which Student Council operates.

“That sort of renewed energy is something that is not missing, but it just gives an organization more life and more meaning –– it’s really important,” Gnep said.

After their term is over and they have moved on from their undergraduate careers, Yates, Gnep and Prasad said that they will use many of the skills and experiences they have gained from their time on Student Council.  

Prasad said she has gained so much that has nothing to do with the job. She joined Student Council her first year, and it was her whole world outside of academic classes and was one of the most beneficial ways for her to make friends. Her role as VPO taught her that she loves working in teams.

“I found the people who are there every week are pretty dedicated and pretty wonderful to be around,” Prasad said.

Gnep agreed that chairs are more than people who are just there to do a job –– they are people to build community with. He also noted the importance of leading with your person and not your title –– something he will continue to practice in the future, but that Student Council allowed him to build upon.

“I don’t think we are in an environment, especially at U.Va., that someone is comfortable and willing enough to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have the knowledge for it,” Gnep said. “But that’s something that my chairs and Ellen and Shefy really taught me to say and learn to embrace –– just not knowing and being okay if someone can help support you through that.”

Yates mentioned that serving as president forced her to deal with every kind of crisis and conflict in the last year. She said that the role allowed her to see what issues students care about and why they care about them. The University, she added, is a microcosm of the outside world, so the tensions are analogous to what is happening off Grounds as well. 

“We sort of joke Student Council is kind of a second major that we all take on,” Yates said. “But being in this position is very much like what being in positions looks like outside U.Va. as well.” 

Gnep added that at the end of the day, the three of them made it all out of their terms together. There is a new group taking over, and they are looking forward to seeing what they do.

“I’ll say that I think we feel settled in knowing that we’re leaving the organization in really great hands and in hands that are going to do wonderful, amazing things with all the resources they have, especially just bringing a more robust conversation to the student experience at U.Va. because there’s a lot of different facets that are missing, and they’re really engaged with all of that so early on,” Gnep said. 

The first General Body meeting under the new administration will take place on Tuesday.