When I found out that I would be writing this column, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t write opinions that were so obvious no rational person could possibly disagree with them: the uselessness of bag checks at Van Pelt, the uselessness of Penn’s student government and Trump. After all, a column should seek to spark a discussion, not reflect popular views that virtually no one opposes. However, I’m going to break that promise today, and no, it won’t be about The Donald. Not yet.
The Freshman Class Board and the Undergraduate Assembly held their freshman elections last week. I know, I had no idea either until The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that two freshmen were disqualified for violating the Fair Practices Code. For many students, including myself, this brought to mind the “House of Cards”-style politics of Penn student government a couple years back, in which the vice president of the UA attempted to impeach the president and then faced charges for campaign violations — which included the rather un-Frank Underwood charge of “not fully reporting the costs of buying Facebook likes.”
I am not so naive as to believe that public service is always (or ever, really) done in the name of service alone. After all, it takes a certain amount of ambition and self-confidence to believe that you can represent your peers. Yet, I am also not cynical enough to believe that we can ignore the responsibility to the public completely. There are many ways to serve the Penn community and even more ways to make a difference in the lives of Penn members — not just student government. The prestige of the class board or the UA is not such that those trying to improve the community are automatically led to think that running for seats in these organizations is the answer — you really do have to be a certain kind of person to do it.
Part of the problem is systematic. The timing of the election means that freshmen who decide to run must do so before they even identify the problems or issues at the school. These are kids who are just taking their first midterms. Nonetheless, the tradition of making unrealistic campaign promises continued this year — longer dining hours, a Quad concert series and class-wide snowball fights were all promised.
Of course, also in adherence to tradition, students attempted to win by posting funny pictures of themselves and printing catchy posters. And look, like I said, I understand that this isn’t the presidential election. The only significant thing the UA got done during my time that I can recall was to begin providing airport shuttles — which, well, thank you UA. Clearly not many things (if any) are at stake, but I will still claim, at the risk of sounding horribly old fashioned, that an election should represent something and that things ought to be done in a certain way.
I hope people do not take this to be the usual criticism of Penn’s student government organizations as ineffective. Certainly, my limited knowledge concerning its role and accomplishments has to do partly with my lack of interest, and one could claim that if I’m not a part of the solution, I’m a part of the problem. The thing is, it’s really hard to think that anyone would say printing a rather inappropriate/awkward picture of themselves with a punny logo (mine would have been “Ready to Leed” — just saying) really is the solution. Rather, I’m trying to talk about how those trying to get involved should approach it — as a true form of service, and as something more than a personal goal. Even if the system is flawed, that doesn’t mean you have to uphold its flaws by participating in it without good reason.
If you are new on campus, and looking to truly make a difference, here is the advice of a lowly columnist: Sit back, and observe. Notice things, and think about those things in different ways. Talk to people about them until you feel like you have a deeper understanding. Wanting to be at the helm of the ship isn’t a bad thing, but take your time in moving up through the ranks. Notice how rough the sea is, how bright the moon. Earn the respect of your peers by displaying intelligence, dedication and courage. And when considering whether to bear the weight of representing others, really consider the weight of that responsibility and what it means. For the journey might be more perilous than you think, the light from stars not quite so bright and blind ambition and self-interest too heavy for the ship to bear.
JAMES LEE is a College junior from Seoul, South Korea studying English and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. His email address is email@example.com. “The Conversation” usually appears every other Monday.
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