Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
As the 2016-17 University of Maryland SGA president, I worked to represent more than 28,000 undergraduate students. It's a unique, isolated feeling — one that some would argue I've forced on myself by literally signing up to do the job — to attempt to be a representative of 28,000 of your peers — 28,000 people with different backgrounds, personalities, cultures and beliefs. Some similar, but none the same. I am tasked with being their voice and expected to support them in every way they ask — no matter my personal opinions and beliefs. While serving as president, I discovered that solutions are rarely black and white; most of them must fall into a gray area of compromise. To think that there is a perfect solution to every problem is well-intentioned but naïve, as is believing one person's plans can fix every issue facing a community of thousands. The input of those one serves is essential to the creation of true, sustainable solutions.
When I began my term last year, I had goals of completely transforming the organization after watching us fail to truly represent and engage students for the past three years of my membership. I learned from the repeated criticism of the SGA that we needed to do more to connect with the student body, and we needed to actually follow up on the promises we made.
Though I had the vision and was ready to make change, I realized almost immediately after the start of my term that having plans and motivation was only half the battle. The other half was listening to those who elected me and letting them know I was ready to do so.
In an effort to show students I wanted to hear from them and bring new perspectives to the SGA, I carried out as many initiatives as I could think of that might increase the number of student voices I hear. I started by appointing students to my cabinet who had never been in SGA before but had led a student group or been active in our campus community. By the start of the school year, I'd worked with my cabinet to plan a town hall for every month of the semester, on topics like student fees, mental health and development in College Park.
Throughout the year, I require us to livestream every SGA general body meeting to make it easier for students to see what decisions we were making so they could let us know if they had ideas or issues with them. At the start of fall semester, I wrote an op-ed encouraging students to come talk to me and the rest of SGA whenever they needed us. Every week of the year, I held presidential office hours three times a week for four to six hours at a time. From this, I saw an incredible increase in the number of students we were hearing from, and I learned so much more from the students than I ever could have imagined.
It was through these outreach initiatives that I learned the importance of putting down my personal ideas and beliefs and picking up those of the people who elected me. I didn't have to abandon my personal values or beliefs while serving as president, but I did have to have an open mind and heart for students' concerns and needs.
This is the mark of a true public servant and what your SGA and student body president should be doing for you: listening actively and working toward solutions genuinely. They must listen more than they speak about solutions, and they must make time to hear from those they serve.
As my term comes to a close, I am able to say that as president, I followed up on every single one of my goals and every presidential project I set out to accomplish during campaigning — but that doesn't mean the SGA is perfect.
Going forward, we still must commit further to hearing the complaints and issues students have. While listening to the debates and reading Diamondback articles during this election cycle, it's clear to me that there are plenty of students who have had complaints throughout the year but haven't had the chance to voice them until election season. I write this hoping to reach the students who have spoken up during this election, but never before. I want you all to feel empowered and know where to go to speak up about your concerns year-round. I urge you to take the opportunities to let us know what you think.
If you find yourself upset by the way we allocate student fees, the election process or any one of the nearly 40 pieces of legislation we've passed this year, I urge you to bring your thoughts and feelings to us before the year is over. Our last meeting is on Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the Benjamin Banneker room in Stamp, where you can join us and meet the next president and the legislature. Can't make it? Then come by the SGA office in Stamp and visit us. Read our legislation and more about our members at www.umdsga.com. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet at us at @UMDSGA. Slip a note under our office door.
We are listening, and we care. We just need your voices.
Katherine Swanson, student body president, is a senior government & politics major. She can be reached at email@example.com.