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New student BOV member Sarita Mehta hopes to give voice to those who feel unheard

Mehta hopes the the position’s unique opportunity to convey student’s concerns allows her to give a voice to those who may feel unheard

<p>The student member of the Board of Visitors is an unconventional form of student leadership in that students enter into the position without a platform, instead aiming to reflect the wishes of the student body and convey student concerns at Board of Visitor meetings.</p>

The student member of the Board of Visitors is an unconventional form of student leadership in that students enter into the position without a platform, instead aiming to reflect the wishes of the student body and convey student concerns at Board of Visitor meetings.

Rising fourth-year College student Sarita Mehta will begin her term as the new student member of the Board of Visitors on Tuesday. Taking over for graduate Batten student Mazzen Shalaby, Mehta will sit as a non-voting member on the Board of Visitors, which is composed of 17 voting members appointed by the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Mehta hopes to engage with the student body as an active listener and relay any concerns to the Board and University administration, serving as a voice to those who may not always feel heard on Grounds. 

While Mehta will be unable to cast votes, she will serve as a conduit between students and the administration, giving student input into areas that the Board of Visitors oversees such as budget and policy approval and the maintenance of University systems. With eight standing committees — including Finance, Academic and Student Life and Buildings and Grounds — the Board meets four times a year to make final decisions on all policies related to the University. The Board is responsible for directing the use of the University’s endowment and proposing long-term plans for the future of the University.

The student member of the Board of Visitors is an unconventional form of student leadership in that students enter into the position without a platform, instead aiming to reflect the wishes of the student body and convey student concerns at Board of Visitor meetings.

Among her many motivations, including furthering student self-governance and moving the University forward, Mehta was one of 23 students who applied for the role hoping that it would allow her to serve as a voice for students and groups that often feel they go unheard. Mehta had to apply online and go through two rounds of interviews — one with the Student Member of the Board selection committee followed by one with the Executive Committee of the Board of Visitors itself.

“The main reason I wanted to do this position is [because] you’re really uniquely situated in that you’re able to give voice to all students and make them feel heard when they may not feel that way in everyday life,” Mehta said. “Having the chance to give everybody a voice and be that figurehead that can speak out for students is a very daunting position...but also a very important role.”

Studying in the Honors Politics program and minoring in psychology, Mehta has held varied roles during her three years on Grounds, including three years of serving as an Honor support officer, a First Year Judiciary Committee member, a Tri Delta sorority sister and a senior editor for the Virginia Review of Politics. Despite her many involvements, Mehta is eager to become fully immersed in her new position.

“The thing I’m anticipating is just the anticipation that nobody knows what fall will look like — it’s really making sure that I’m available and devoting time come fall to be there for people,” Mehta said. “I don’t see this as an extracurricular or some side-commitment — I’m placing this as my full-time job.”

Given the required changes to University operations because of the pandemic, Mehta anticipates that the fall semester will come with challenges and has already begun reaching out to student leaders across Grounds to let them know she will be there to listen when inevitable concerns arise. 

“The biggest part of my role is I’m always going to be listening,” Mehta said. “I want to listen, and I’m going to be taking as many active efforts as I can to reach out to students and try to hear their experiences, their worries and be there for them.”

Mehta has one overarching goal — clear and consistent communication. Aside from this goal, Mehta is prepared to do the work of actively listening and reaching out to students to crowdsource what the varied and multiplicitous concerns of the student body are.

“Being the student member is a unique position in that in opposed to having my own agenda I’m trying to be as reflective and representative of what the students see are the issues and changes they want made,” Mehta said. “I want to put [my own biases] to the side and will make a conscious effort to have my agenda reflect what everyone collectively thinks is important.”

Mazzen Shalaby, the Board's student member for the 2020-21 school year, agrees that Mehta’s goal of transparent, constant communication is crucial to the position. 

Shalaby’s best advice to Mehta is twofold — consciously attempt to humanize everyone and everything, and don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

Given Mehta’s goals of communication, Shalaby noted that it’s easy for passionate individuals to fall into dehumanizing a group or opinion one doesn’t agree with without creating space for conversation, and he constantly made efforts to have conversations with a diverse array of perspectives. 

“One big thing with communication is trying to humanize everything and everyone,” Shalaby said. “Once we get people to understand that and have conversations … you start to realize you’re talking to an actual human being and can realize they have a complicated set of interests and perspectives just like I do, they have complex interests and motivations just like me.”

As for the critical importance of understanding and relaying the concerns of student groups, Shalaby says that with everything going on, it’s not reasonable to reinvent the wheel as the student member. Rather, he found inspiration in looking to groups and individuals already doing great work and used this to inform his role.

“Something that’s been very inspiring in an often uninspiring year has been the people I’ve had the opportunity and fortune to interact with,” Shalaby said. “It’s encouraging to see that there are so many impressive human beings doing great work for the communities that I think we all care about.”

Entering into the position as the University begins implementing plans to bring students back to residential learning in the fall, Mehta is aware that each student has different experiences and issues and wants to take into account how the pandemic has affected students. 

In addition to making existing inequalities worse, Mehta said, the challenges of the 2020-21 school year “raised a lot of questions looking to what we want U.Va. to look like.” 

“It’s being on the forefront of those challenges and having that long-term vision [that] is really important,” Mehta said.

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