After almost five semesters on the Undergraduate Assembly, my perception of student leadership has changed a lot.
When I arrived on campus in fall 2010, I was under the impression that the positions and titles you accumulate over four years were crucial to making a meaningful impact at Penn. Programs like PENNacle and the Penn Student Government late night framed how I thought of “leaders” on campus. They convinced me that being an elected or appointed leader of the student body is a big deal. These students are given responsibilities and can distinguish themselves through service.
But my experiences at Penn have put this belief into question. Time after time, I’ve noticed that the individuals who end up advocating for students are ordinary members of the Penn community with an extraordinary story to tell.
I witnessed this phenomenon during the spring of my freshman year. Eight hundred and ninety words written by Christopher Abreu, a College of Liberal and Professional Studies student, sparked a demonstration involving over 200 students and faculty. Abreu, who was not a prominent figure on campus, shared his experience encountering racial slurs on campus through a guest column in The Daily Pennsylvanian.
The column garnered thousands of views virtually overnight. The day after it was published, I dressed in all black and held hands with a crowd of Quakers on College Green to show our solidarity. Even Penn President Amy Gutmann took time to stand with us and reflect on the incident.
Later that fall, Wharton junior Tania Chairez revealed her undocumented status in another column in the DP. Chairez, who was “unapologetic” about her story, revealed some of the hardships that undocumented students face on campus. She went on to endure temporary arrest and a trial before gaining national attention by appearing on the front cover of Time magazine. She did all of this before becoming the newly elected vice chair of the Latino Coalition, the umbrella group for Latino organizations.
This month, second-year Graduate School of Education student Dephanie Jao wrote a compelling column detailing a personal encounter with racial and sexual harassment from individuals claiming to be members of Drexel Universty’s Greek community. Her words sparked widespread discussion and responses across the city.
None of these students held a student government office or collaborated with campus leaders to advocate for their causes.
What’s even more interesting is that none of the issues they addressed were anything new or groundbreaking. Racial slurs were thrown around campus before Abreu thought to speak up.
Undocumented students were a part of campus life before Chairez broke the silence. And sexual harassment had been a problem long before Jao spoke up against “Hunting for Asians.”
Why didn’t student government take more steps to address these issues before Abreu, Chairez and Jao took to the stands? Where were they once it was apparent that undocumented students as well as victims of sexual and racial harassment needed more support from campus? Who knows? But what is clear is that a new kind of leader is emerging on campus. One who can drive a cause better from their position in the backseat than the person who occupies the front seat.
The new leader commands, rather than begs, the administration to hear her. He mobilizes everyone to his cause. She is daring, bold and not afraid of scrutiny, for she knows that the outcome matters more than her personal sacrifices.
There was a time when student government acted fiercely — like our new leaders. But I’m not so sure of our situation now. To remind myself (yes, I forget sometimes too, just as you do), I turned to the UA’s website and discovered that we are supposedly charged with “improving life for all students through funding, services and advocacy.”
Although we do a decent job of funding student groups through our annual budget and we provide great services like our $5 holiday airport shuttles, we’ve failed to advocate effectively for marginalized members of the student body.
Advocacy should be student leaders’ primary concern. It’s what gave women the freedom to attend all thirteen schools in 1976. It’s what reminds some stubborn professors to put up online course syllabi on Penn InTouch.
Over the last two years, we’ve seen Abreu, Chairez and Jao — rather than the UA — advocate for the student body. And it’s time we put students back in the heart of Penn Student Government.
Ernest Owens is a College junior from Chicago, Ill. His email address is email@example.com. “The Ernest Opinion” appears every Friday. Toss him a tweet @MrErnestOwens.