Newly elected Undergraduate Assembly President, College junior Michelle Xu, and Vice President, College sophomore Jay Shah, ran together on a platform to improve mental health, combat Penn’s competitive culture and reduce costs for students. The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with both leaders to discuss their future initiatives for the Undergraduate Assembly and what it means to them to be elected.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: Why did you run for the UA Executive Board?
Michelle Xu: The first time I ran for the UA was freshman year and it was really a way for me to branch out and meet new people but also to get to understand the school more. As I kept going on with the UA, I became really passionate about certain projects I was working on, like club recruitment and allocation because I was the treasurer the past year. I’m also just the most experienced member on the UA — me and Jay are the only ones who have had both exec and cabinet experience so we were just really confident in what we believed in and also our ability to carry it out.
Jay Shah: Running for vice president is not a decision that is made quickly. A lot of thought has to go with it. We saw a lot of aspects of the UA that really needed to be improved upon and we felt that there were changes that need to be made both internally and externally for the UA to reach its maximum potential.
DP: Michelle, you won by a pretty major margin. What do you think made your platform so successful?
Xu: Our election platform really focused on the five biggest issues that we feel affect Penn’s campus and I think that’s partly why it was such a successful platform — it really spoke to Penn students. First, we wanted to focus on facilitating a campus climate that emphasizes and prioritizes mental wellness. Our second thing we really wanted to focus on was reducing the costs associated with attending Penn; our third point was that we wanted to create a safe and inclusive and responsible environment for all students here; our fourth was that we wanted to modify academic resources to just better fit students’ needs and our fifth was that we wanted to modify currently un-utilized space.
DP: Jay, your election was a little different and you had a much closer race. You’ve run for other positions before, how was this election different?
Shah: This is my third election. This was very different in the sense that you’re trying to reach a greater population ... the race is more competitive as a president and vice president — you’re really trying to develop a platform because the way that it has been historically is that the president and vice president’s platform eventually turn into the main projects that the UA works on throughout the year.
DP: What do you want to change internally within the UA?
Shah: One of the biggest things we want to focus on internally is making the UA a more cohesive unit. I really believe, and we both really believe, that the stronger the UA is as a unit, the more effective it will be and the better it will be able to serve the student body.
DP: What are your future initiatives for next year?
Xu: For mental wellness, we’ve been working on modifying or restructuring club recruitment policies. I sat on SAC exec this year, so because of that unique position we’re able to have influence on over 200 clubs on campus and make sure that because it’s such a competitive culture here and it’s really stressful on a lot of students, we kind of want to restructure recruitment to ease that stress. For reducing the costs associated with attending Penn, there are three ways that we want to do that. We want to lobby for a decrease in the tuition every year. My past year as treasurer, I worked on reducing the cost of certain Penn traditions, so Hey Day used to be $35 and now its $19.99 . Also, just working on reducing course costs — so maybe asking professors not to request the newest editions of a textbook because there are certain subjects, like math and econ, that don’t really change that much.
DP: The past three [UA] presidents have all been women. What does it mean to be a female president, especially in today’s political climate?
Xu: I am so proud and honored and humbled to be president. Alec Webley, a past UA president, was the first one to point out to me that my year will be the only year that has never seen a male president, and I think that’s a super cool, quirky fact. When I was a freshman, Joyce was president, and it was so empowering and inspiring to see a female leading the school. And then it was Jane, who was amazing, and then it was Kat, who has been my mentor since my freshman year, and I am so proud of the fact that we’ve had really strong female presidents.
DP: What do you want to be your legacy?
Xu: I would just be really proud if we could somehow make it easier for the next generation of students coming to Penn, for them to just not have to deal with all the struggles that we have had to deal with. Which is obviously a lot to say and these problems are a lot of long-term problems that won’t get fixed within the year, but if we could just make it a little easier for them, I would be really happy.
Shah: Essentially, we all join the UA to make a change and the reason why I really joined the UA and started to believe in the potential of the UA was I faced a lot of problems freshman year, especially with mental health — it was very, very hard and pretty stressful, especially in the first couple weeks dealing with rejections from clubs. The academic environment was totally new, so I was kind of like “this might not be the healthiest of environments” and so I wanted to make Penn more healthy in the four years that I have here. So, one of the biggest projects that we focused on this year — Michelle and I and Brian Goldstein, he’s one of the freshmen — is trying to make the club recruitment process less stressful, especially in the first couple of weeks.
DP: What do you want to tell students about next year?
Shah: One of the things that we really want to focus on and that was a central theme is — and this is the change that we want to make externally — is the purpose of the UA. Right now, it’s seen as this body that’s kind of exclusive, and we really want the UA to be a resource for all of the organizations on campus. As vice president, one of my major responsibilities is to work with other groups, so I lead UA steering which is held biweekly. It has the heads of the major organizations on campus and really serves as a form to unite the organization and foster more collaboration. So, I really want to work to make changes within that and as vice president try to meet with all of the steering members one-on-one and try to bring that to the UA to try to solve the issues that are on campus.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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