Undergraduate Assembly President Michelle Xu and Vice President Jay Shah have led the UA for the past year, and their tenure is coming to an end this month as their successors were elected on April 5.
Throughout the past year, Xu and Shah worked to implement solutions to issues for which they campaigned, but while they made steps in tackling mental health, other initiatives like reducing the cost of tuition and increasing space for student performing groups were not as successful.
When they were campaigning, Xu and Shah said they would focus on five key issues if elected: facilitating a campus climate that prioritized mental wellness, reducing costs of attending Penn, creating an inclusive environment for all students, modifying academic resources to better fit students' needs, and reviving un-utilized space for student groups, according to a guest statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
“I think what we ended up focusing on the most was the first tenant which was facilitating a campus climate that prioritizes and emphasizes mental wellness,” Xu said, adding that “everything else took a little bit of a backseat” in the face of recent student deaths, natural disasters, and political instability.
“We definitely focused more on mental wellness than I expected to, but it is in no way a bad thing — I think we did what we needed to do and we worked with the people that we had to," she continued.
One of the biggest projects to come out of Xu and Shah's term was the Student Activities Council Club Recruitment Guidelines, a set of seven rules by which all SAC-funded clubs must abide. The guidelines, couched under the framework of prioritizing mental health on campus, were meant to "reduce unnecessary competition and humanize the process."
Among other things, the guidelines prohibit clubs from conducting more than two rounds of interviews for a position and “from asking questions of applicants that may constitute discrimination or harassment based on Penn's Non-discrimination Statement."
“If student groups want a table at the SAC activities fair, they will have to abide by these guidelines, but I think that the impact that this is going to have on student groups is actually enormous,” Shah said.
These guidelines were not finalized in time for the 2018 SAC Spring Activities Fair, but will be firmly implemented during the fall 2018 club recruitment season, according to Xu and Shah.
In conjunction with their mental health platform, Xu and Shah also worked throughout the year to create a Mental Health Survey that was sent out to all Penn students on Feb. 27 to gauge the degree to which students were utilizing the mental health resources offered on campus.
Another project included a push for faculty to include a list of the mental health resources on campus in their syllabi to emphasize that they are just as important to students as academic resources. Xu and Shah also had a part in getting Penn to publicly support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students by providing resources and hotlines.
"Whether or not they’re responsible for the services that are being provided or not I think is almost irrelevant to the fact that they cared enough to make this a priority and put this on their agenda and is an important showing of solidarity with the students," Director of the Penn Law Transnational Legal Clinic Sarah Paoletti said.
Shah explained that while this initiative was not one that they initially planned to pursue when campaigning, it has risen to become one of their biggest priorities this year.
Xu and Shah also worked to reduce additional course costs and encourage cost transparency from faculty. After continuous lobbying from last year’s UA Executive Board, Xu and Shah eradicated course fees — costs that might cover materials for a fine arts class, for example.
Several other aspects of their platform, however, did not live up to their promises.
Aiming to reduce Penn's tuition cost has been a mainstay of the UA's agenda since the last session according to Xu; however, no substantial progress has been made.
Despite the constant communication between the UA and the administration regarding lowering the yearly tuition, there does not seem to be a tuition change coming any time soon. In fact, undergraduate tuition saw a 3.8 percent increase for the 2018-2019 academic year, exceeding $70,000 in costs for the first time.
Additionally, there still remains little space for cultural and performing arts groups to use.
Shah said that the project to modify underutilized spaces has to be more long-term, due to the fact that spaces either need to be built or refurbished in order to accommodate performing arts groups.
Despite the minimal progress, affected students said they appreciate the sustained effort that the UA has put into the issue.
Wharton senior and former Dance Arts Council Chair Nick Silverio said together with Shah, they worked to create a comprehensive report reflecting the current status of on-campus rehearsal space.
“This report will be utilized to create a referendum, signed by all the performing arts groups, to the University to demonstrate the needs of performing arts groups," Silverio said. The report will soon be made public.
Additionally, while Xu and Shah also intended to further publicize the UA and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly-sponsored mentoring program — one that pairs undergraduates with graduate students who are working in areas that the younger students are interested in — very minimal progress was actually made.
Shah said that while the program had been in place for several years, it “kind of tail-ended” this year. In the President and Vice President Platform Mid-Year Status Report, it was written that “little work has been done marketing this or any other UA service other than an all-school email."
The UA Annual Report — a cumulative document providing an overall update on what each UA committee has accomplished during the given school year — will be sent out by Xu to every student and administrator on campus before the end of the semester.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.