I originally ran for the Student Government Association (SGA) on a whim. It wasn’t even something on my mind in February 2020, but after talking to a graduating senator, it was all I could think about — what platform I would run on, who I would run on a ticket with, what changes I was truly excited about making to our institution and our SGA and so on.
Especially in the void of purpose in my life that the pandemic created in March 2020, the at-once terrifying and exciting prospect of running for SGA was all-consuming. It seemed like an amazing way to make a lasting impact on Hopkins as a senior and experienced student leader. I was saddened by the state of SGA that Chanel Lee, a former SGA senator, described in their op-ed from last spring (give it a read for context), and I wanted to work to ensure that students felt like they had a stake in student government.
Now that I’ve experienced the operations of SGA for the better part of a year, I can say that though this year’s SGA has improved by leaps and bounds, these problems are far from resolved. And as members of the student body that SGA represents, it is imperative that we demand more of our student representatives.
At the end of elections last spring, all seven members of the senior class council won their positions uncontested. In retrospect, this should have been a warning sign. There is so much structure present in the student governments of our peer institutions but nonexistent in our SGA. This is reflected in a lack of standards of teamwork and leadership.
In my time on SGA, the Executive Board needed to constantly remind senators to fulfill any task, large or small. Those who consistently contribute end up picking up the slack rather than the work being split evenly; I personally did this many times when the Executive Board asked for help filling a position or picking up a task for the umpteenth time.
There is a lack of guiding documents. For one, the Committee on Student Organizations had to start the school year without a transition document, and management of the committee started completely from scratch.
Perhaps most importantly, SGA does not have a widely known, consistent source to obtain diverse student opinions, which impacts its ability to make informed decisions. The onus is on SGA to reach out, but SGA relies on students to voluntarily provide information and opinions. Hopkins students have historically let opportunities to express their opinions go unused — this is a hurdle that has appeared throughout all my experiences at Hopkins, not just SGA. A lot of disagreements within SGA are based on what we believe as individuals, and these easily turn into ad hominem attacks when they should really be informed by differences in student opinion.
This is not something the student body should just brush off; many far-reaching, impactful decisions are made by senators that are not completely informed on an issue. An example of this is the creation of funding caps for student organizations by senators and Student Activities Commission members (including myself) who do not really understand how much things like shipping and niche private contractors cost.
While efforts are being made to rectify these problems, they vary greatly from year to year and rely heavily on the goals and dedication of executive leadership and the vast minority of SGA that regularly does work.
I could not continue with SGA this semester for a complex set of reasons. But before I left, I did try to resolve some of these issues I mentioned. In the fall, the senior class council was largely inactive, and much of the only work and engagement with the senior class that was done was my own. I introduced a bill and created an ad-hoc committee to aid the gathering of student opinions, and a few senators are now continuing these efforts. Senior Class Senator CiCi Zhang and I introduced a highly contested bill about standards of teamwork.
However, at every step there seemed to be the same obstacle; the nature of SGA is that again and again, a few people need to pick up the slack of others, feel discouraged and unsupported and then leave SGA. In recent years, a not-insubstantial number of senators have either quit or have not returned for a second term. But the reality is that if everyone did a little bit of work, there would be a more even split of work to the point where it’s essentially negligible.
Here’s what you can do and why caring about how SGA operates helps you:
- You should vote. Elections are the only way to keep senators accountable, and right now it’s a pure popularity contest. You should check the work log — each senator updates their own section — to find out who has been actually making meaningful changes.
- You should find out who your senators are, and tell them your problems as they occur throughout the year. Instead of just talking about an issue among friends or giving up on it, find someone reliable in SGA to contact (start with Executive President Sam Mollin, Treasurer Addy Perlman, Senior Class Senator CiCi Zhang, Sophomore Class Senator Karen He and Freshman Class President Kobi Khong). SGA has access to a wealth of information, funding and resources, as well as direct links to administrative staff who can do something. Administrators take the opinions of SGA as representative of the entire student body, whether or not that is an accurate assumption, so when SGA reaches out, there is much more weight.
- You should run for SGA. I’m telling you my story to encourage awareness of these problems. But these problems I have described cannot be fully resolved until elections are actually competitive. A few dedicated individuals cannot resolve a failing culture of work. Even if you only care about one topic (like student organizations), you should run for SGA.
And if you’re interested in running for SGA or learning more about SGA, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The takeaway message: Hold your senators accountable. Make sure they’re doing work, and that it’s work that you care about, whatever that might mean for you. If you’re unsatisfied with the management of student organizations, make that known, and make it known loudly. If you want more accessible printing options, make it known. If you think there is not enough advocacy for Black and Indigenous students and students of color on campus, make it known.
Talk to your senators, and make your senators work for you. Real change can only happen if the student body cares enough to hold SGA accountable.
Julia Zeng is a senior from San Diego, Calif. studying Molecular and Cellular Biology and Sociology. Zeng was elected to SGA in spring 2020 and served as a senior class senator until her resignation this January.