S03 E04: College During COVID
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Allyn: Welcome to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund where we expand the conversation on critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your host, Allyn Brooks-LaSure, coming to you from Washington, D.C.
And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad where we discuss pop culture, social justice, and just about everything in between. I’ve got some amazing folks on the Pod Squad today, but this time we’re going to switch it up. We’re going to let them introduce themselves.
Danielle: Hi, my name is Danielle Geathers. I’m the president of the student government at MIT, and I am studying mechanical engineering.
Luis: Hello, everyone, my name is Luis Huerta. I’m a fourth-year political science student at the University of California, Riverside, and I serve as the ASUCR President.
Cameron: Hey, everyone, pleasure to meet you. My name Cameron Markell Nolan. I’m a senior economics major at Morehouse College, and I have the pleasure of serving as 89th SGA President at Morehouse.
Abhiraj: Hi, guys, my name is Abhiraj Muhar. I am a second-year Foothill student, and I am a social justice studies major & a theatre arts major. And I’m also the Foothill Student Government President.
Allyn: Thanks to everyone for joining me. Let’s dive in. How is college? The summer, the fall of 2020, what is it like? Starting with you, Danielle, what’s college like?
Danielle: It’s definitely not as fun as it used to be. I think, at MIT specifically, they’ve done a lot in terms of making sure we have the technology necessary. That’s been very helpful for collaboration. So I think just getting back into the swing of things. -inaudible- We definitely miss the social component, but I think we’re unfortunately getting used to it.
Allyn: How about the rest of you?
Cameron: So Morehouse made the decision to switch and make school 100% virtual, so there’s definitely been some new challenges. So, ever since March, we have been in kind of the same position with classes and scheduling and everything. So it was definitely a transition.
To Danielle’s point, it’s surely not as fun. It really poses a lot of questions to the students’ mental health and how they’re really coping with the pandemic and transitioning there.
Allyn: Luis, how is it at UCR?
Luis: At UCR specifically, we’re currently in a hybrid model, so we still have the option to have remote learning and then in-person learning with some specific courses that will be catered in person. But I’d say right now specifically at UCR a lot of students are suffering from isolation fatigue. I can imagine everyone else on this call, too. But I would say slowly but surely, fingers crossed, we’re able to transition back into in-person learning this upcoming year.
Allyn: And, Abhiraj, how’s your experience at Foothill College?
Abhiraj: Foothill was a half online and half in-person college before, so this transition to going virtual was something that we thought we were going to have pretty easy, but then, you know, it hit us like a train basically because it was a pandemic.
And we’re a community college, so we do have students who have funding issues, things like that, so we had to figure out the rental programs, and WiFi issues, and all those kinds of things for people at home. And, you know, it’s a big issue in that sense.
And then we’re dealing more recently with, you know, the Zoom burnout and really trying to take a look at people’s mental health with Zoom because trying to spend five hours a day on Zoom might not be the best for people sometimes, you know?
Allyn: Several of you brought up the point about social isolation, and mental wellness, and mental health. How are you and your peers dealing with this?
Luis: You know, on the West Coast, we definitely have the privilege and luxury of having a lot of activities I would say to definitely keep our mind coasted away from the current pandemic and the ongoing social issues that we’re experiencing nationwide. But I’d say my peers right now, slowly but surely, we’re transitioning out of the self-quarantine mindset.
I would say a lot of folks were kind of pushing the boundaries of, “Can we go outside now? Can we socialize in person?” while still following the safety precautions in terms of social distancing. We’re slowly pushing the boundaries of what’s next. How can we see each other day by day?
Allyn: What do you think, Cameron?
Cameron: To that certain point, just trying to do our best to have virtual habits or physical habits in your own space. So making sure that you’re actually getting up on the same type of time and getting into that routine. And that’s kind of what quarantine has done is robbed us of routine.
So I had to make sure that my peers and I still are in the same process of getting up, getting a shower because that’s also important, right? But also putting on an attire that would be more symbolic to you, like, your personal style, something that’s not just sweatpants and, you know, a t-shirt. Something that actually kind of motivates you and gets you on the mindset to go because it’s so easy to fall back in bed once your classes are, you know, online and you could put on your PJs and get a nice, little nap in in between. Those online campus habits have been a major concern and a point of emphasis for us.
Allyn: How about your experience at MIT, Danielle?
Danielle: We actually had a lot of students who stayed on campus over the summer, whether it was because they were international or they didn’t have a safe home environment, so we kind of learned the hard way how dangerous isolation can be.
So actually one thing our student government did really early on was do a pods pilot. So we let people pick three to four other friends who they would get tested with, and then they would only hang out with those people in an isolated environment on the dorms.
So now that seniors are on campus, they all pick a pod of up to six people, and they’re allowed to have less strict social distancing measures within that pod. So that’s one thing we really fought with administrators about because we knew how important it would be specifically since classes are so hard and having that mental strain.
So I’m excited moving forward. I think people are able to socialize safely now.
Allyn: And let me ask you this. You all are in positions of leadership. How are you all leading when so many of our leaders are failing throughout this COVID pandemic?
Luis: I would say in terms of leadership, this year, especially since we’re in a remote learning environment, I would say everyone at the UCR community wants to be in the loop. I think there’s a big call for transparency and there’s a big call for just being included.
I think, at the end of the day, when you have students especially when we’re in a remote learning environment and they have a lot of time to just do research, stay updated with current events, things of that sort, there’s a hunger for information. What’s going on in my campus? Seeing as how we’re all stakeholders and we pay tuition, thousands of dollars, it’s a matter of how do you uphold transparency, how do you make sure you’re holding your peers’ hands so to speak, and making sure that they’re included.
And that’s been more so the transition, making sure everyone is included and in the loop, and we have important conversations.
Allyn: How about you, Danielle?
Danielle: I think something for us, as student leaders, we’re always in a position where administrators are like, “So, what do you think?” on, like, some question that we just have not had the time to gauge.
And one thing, my running mate and I, we’re super passionate about, was like not trying to give “yes” answers – like actually being like, “I don’t know. I’ll go poll and come back to you,” rather than just speaking off my experience because I’m sure that’s not what most students are dealing with.
So I think really just being completely authentic in your feedback to administrators because that’s what they’re going to use to make their decision, you know? So I think understanding the power we have and how much responsibility that comes with it to do our due diligence in our jobs.
Allyn: And can you all describe the political process on your campuses? How are you all elected to your positions? What were your campaigns like? What were your slogans?
Cameron: So I actually have my election pushed up literally like a week or two before they would traditionally be. This was something that the college decided to do, kind of, for this year, which played out perfectly because we were in the pandemic. Completely caught me off guard. I knew I wanted to run for SGA president since freshman year, but it was something that I pivoted.
I was officially elected on March 2nd. Within a week, it was like, “Yep, we’re all going home so school is kind of canceled.” So I was able to still have that physical campaign. One of my love languages is physical touch, and my Gallup strength is woo, so I really love people and being in front of people. So, like, that was vital for me for going into election is being able to shake hands and kiss babies and the like. It was still fun. I had a blast.
Allyn: What about you, Abhiraj? Did you kiss a lot of babies when you were running for president?
Abhiraj: Thankfully not. We had our elections all virtually. So our virtual elections, we had actually in late April. It was a little bit later than Cameron’s was, and there was competition for my position. And, you know, definitely one of those things that was hard to figure out from that, a virtual election, is that how are you going to do that portion of, you know, the handholding, the kissing the babies, all that kind of…like, how are you going to do that online, right? So that was definitely very difficult to figure out.
I took inspiration from what we see in our, like, leaders in the government today. You know, we see them on live streams. Their social media has, you know, blown up to really represent what their political platform may be or what their platform, in general, may be. So using things like that to really engage the public.
Allyn: How about you, Danielle? You made history with your campaign. What was your strategy? What was your plan? How did you become elected?
Danielle: MIT unfortunately is known as a pretty apolitical campus. So actually I was the first contested election in three years. And before that, I think the percentage of voter turnout was like under 20%. So I kind of came in knowing the -inaudible- is to, one, convince people to vote before they even were convinced to vote for me.
But, yeah, so typically similar to Cameron, we usually do our elections after we come back from spring break, and MIT spring break is pretty late so March, April. So, after COVID, we pushed our elections back to the last week of April. It was completely virtual. I learned a lot about Instagram thinking you’re a bot from following too many people.
So that was definitely one of the obstacles I faced, but just in general leveraging social media, lots of Zoom calls, actually worse than they are now – like 12 hours a day to try to convince people to vote for you.
Something else that was really big was just the uncertainty, you know? Typically you run for student government. You’re like, “Oh, we’ll have cool parties. We’ll do x, we’ll do y.” We’re like, “We have no idea what’s going to happen in the fall. We’re not going to promise you anything, but we can tell you our values,” so we just ran on unity, equity, and authenticity. And we’re like, “No matter what happens we’ll make sure we represent you and specifically underrepresented voices.” So that was kind of our plan when running in our campaign strategy.
Allyn: What about you, Luis?
Luis: My university is on a quarter system, right? So, at the start of spring quarter is when we had our elections. And I don’t know about everyone else’s university, but our universities…we don’t have parties, right? So you ran as a standalone candidate so you don’t have any running mates. That even added more, I would say, to kind of like the self-isolation in terms of campaigning, because you don’t have anyone that could hold your hand. You don’t have anyone that you could kind of like vent to like, “Hey, this is what we need to do,” because you’re a standalone candidate when it comes to this election.
But I would say the transition to having a virtual campaign and having that election style, it was awkward, I would say. Some points that we had touched on earlier was the lack of authenticity. I’m not able to engage with students in person. I’m not able to campaign. I’m not able to give speeches in person. I would say, in terms of the delivery of messages and being able to actually engage students, I think is completely more meaningful when you’re in-person. I would say, when it came to virtual campaigning, it was rough, it was difficult, but I’d say I was successful.
Allyn: And this is a question that I’m directing to all of you. And I’m curious to know, now that you’re serving in your positions, what is on the mind of your peers, the people that you’re leading? What are they thinking about as they think about the nation, as they think about the world? What’s seizing them? What’s capturing their attention?
Cameron: I believe that, as a leader, one of your charges is to motivate, inspire your people, and getting everybody onto a shared vision. That’s really the style of leadership that I identify with.
Morehouse College is a HBCU or a historically black college university and it’s only for black men. So when you’re looking out to the news and you’re seeing people that could have very well been a Morehouse individual – that very well looked like your mentors, your father figures, your uncles – so that’s really been the focus for my administration. The tagline of my administration is the “nexus administration,” so really being the nexus of academia and activism. That’s my focus, and that’s my charge as student body.
Allyn: Thank you. Danielle.
Danielle: So one thing specifically after the murder of George Floyd, students were like, “What can we do? How could we use our privilege to change something?” So I think I saw, like, the biggest uproar just in terms of student organizations over the summer being, like, “Can we donate our extra funds? What can we do? Like, what should our college be doing?” Reaching out to diversity, equity, and inclusion experts saying, like, “How do we change our club? Like, what should our club be doing?” Like, MIT just in general, really prioritizing that change.
So I think the biggest thing for us right now is: what are we doing and how big of an impact is it having? At a technology school, we can get so caught up with learning how to do these, like, really technical things that do have an impact on the world but, like, in the grander scheme of things, like, maybe you shouldn’t be spending all your time doing that, and I think that’s a really big reckoning.
We’ve seen such a big uproar just in terms of applications for student government leadership positions. People are really reflecting on how much time they’re putting into things that actually matter.
Allyn: And, Abhiraj, how did you experience it at your college?
Abhiraj: Just as Danielle was saying, during the summer with the civil unrest, we saw a lot of people interested in, you know, making sure that equity is our number one focus on campus, that we’re implementing that not just within, like, a separate issue, not having a separate board for equity but making sure equity is kept in mind when we’re doing our revenue and resources.
When we’re doing our community engagement, when we’re doing our educational curriculum setting and all those kinds of things, equity is our number one priority in that.
Allyn: Great, thank you. Luis.
Luis: With the incidence of civil unrest and, you know, with the unfortunate death of George Floyd, at my university specifically, I’d say it’s all hands on deck, right? I’d say students were just asking how do we get involved, how do we engage, and how do we make a difference.
So I’d say the hot ticket item right now is just social justice. How can we make sure that every identity, every body, and every student that has a different background at our university fit in? How are we using our privilege as it was mentioned earlier to help advocate and help voices that normally wouldn’t be voiced? You know, how do we include students? How do we get students in meetings that they normally wouldn’t have access to, right? I would say this whole issue of exclusivity, when it comes to campus admin and really the key decision-makers on campus, how do we ensure that all bodies and all voices on campus are included?
Referencing the unfortunate death of George Floyd earlier this year, I’d say since then there’s been an increase of coalitions, increase of student groups that aren’t directly sponsored by the university, and response to the lack of charge, to the lack of leadership taken by student leaders or whether it be campus admin.
I think a trend right now that I hope continues is that you have students that were kind of taking an informal route of, “Hey, administration isn’t doing what we need it to do. How are we going to take charge?”
So I’d say, at UCR, that’s kind of what’s going on right now. How do we engage every student and make sure we’re truly on the same front?
Allyn: How are these times changing you as a leader? You all put your hat in the ring before these major events occurred in the world, but the world has shifted around you. The nation has shifted around you for a variety of reasons—COVID-19, George Floyd’s killing, the killing of so many others, Breonna Taylor, etc. etc. What has that done to you as a leader?
Cameron: For me, what it looks like is, again, like I mentioned earlier, having people in my space is very key to my leadership. I love to have the dialogues and the fireside chats, right? So being virtual has called me to a position of reflection about what do I need as a leader but, better yet, how do I grow leaders?
So one of the things that I implemented within my administration is programs that are strictly tailored to the development of leadership. Whether it be first-year students, whether it be senior-level students, my focus has been…though my leadership plans have changed because of the pandemic, right, I still want to put forth a large emphasis on leadership student-body-wide.
So, for me, I value leadership so much so I look at it as a situation of I can motivate 10 students to be better leaders and they motivate another 10. It starts this domino effect of just better leaders because leadership is everywhere. It’s in parenthood. It’s in the way in which you engage with your community so leadership is essential to us especially right now because you could see what happens when you have a lack of leadership.
Danielle: I think a lot has changed for me just in terms of leadership style, but I think one of the biggest changes, I always had a diversity, equity, and inclusion vision even running but I think it’s definitely been boosted. I think my confidence in terms of asking for things, kind of I think Cameron also like foreshadowed it, is definitely there.
Like just in general – in terms of I think students wanting to have an impact, since I have a student body that craves that, I see it as my job to make it happen. So I think just me being focused more on higher-impact things. I think our student government has always been ensuring that our student, on-campus life is great, but now that’s not really my focus. Like, I do want to ensure that but, at the same time, I’m thinking, “What about outside of MIT? How are we using our privilege to move forward?”
And then I’ve committed to myself but I still have a bunch of administrators’ commitments, too. So I think just changing my focus to think bigger and then also not be afraid to ask questions and say, “Why are we doing this? Why aren’t we helping more people?” because that’s been the biggest mindset shift for me.
Allyn: What about you? What shifted for you as a leader, Luis?
Luis: Especially now, one thing I’ve learned that it’s really important to recognize you have a team. You have a lot of people that are willing to support you and back you up because, prior to the current events, my leadership style has always been, “I’m going to drive the boat. I’m going to put the team on my back and we’re going to get to the Promised Land,” so to speak, right?
But what I’ve realized recently that it’s really important, you know, to engage your peers. If you’re not planting seeds and you’re not nourishing these relationships, once I graduate or once I finish the work or the objective is completed, once the next problem happens and I’m no longer here, what’s going on because I failed as a leader to engage students, plant the seeds, and, you know, spread their wisdom and knowledge that I have, right?
In recent months, that’s kind of where I pivoted, right? It’s really important that, one, you take the time to engage your team, engage your peers, and be able to spread wisdom. This is how you get work done. This is how you advocate. This is how you organize. This is how you lobby, things of that sort.
So I’d say that’s where I pivoted and recognized the importance of engaging your team and making sure everyone is on the same united front.
Allyn: Every day we’re hearing so much about politics. We’re being swamped from all sides with political conversation. The question I have for you is: what should political candidates be talking about more of that you’re not hearing for them right now?
Danielle: One thing that I am interested in hearing more about is, like, why we should vote from a positive lens. I think there’s a lot of, “Here’s what horrible things will happen if you don’t vote,” but how about, like, telling us more of what we are actually voting for and what hard policies you plan to implement that will actually affect college students other than, “Oh, this one’s horrible. These are the bad things that will happen.”
I think Barack Obama ran on hope, you know? And I think positivity really is what drives people to action versus fear. It’s going to really just stagnate people, so I would love to hear more strict policy-driven actions and ideas and something that college students can be excited for and want to vote for rather than just, like, not voting for someone else.
Allyn: Cameron, what should the political candidates for president be talking about?
Cameron: I put a large emphasis on my favorite word, which is “legacy.” Change is inevitable so change being a market piece of conversation doesn’t do enough for me. I’m thinking about beginning with the end in mind and leaving every space better than you found it.
So what I would love for both candidates involved, when you’re talking about legacy, is thinking about, years from now, where do you expect America to be? Whether it be socially, whether it be economically, where would it be globally as far as the global climate? Thinking about how can we sustain ourselves, the lifestyle in which we live. Who is America going to be in 2024? Like, that’s the type of mindset that I’m having right now. I think a lot of candidates need to have that type of focus.
Allyn: Right. Thank you. Final question for you all. If there is one thing that people should know about your generation, one thing that they should know about this new generation of leaders that are coming forward, what is that? What is something that we should know about your generation that we don’t know?
Abhiraj: I actually have been thinking about this thing for quite a while, and so it’s a perfect question. And mine is actually kind of inspired by the DNC. There was a moment where Joe Biden said something, and this actually really resonated with me. You know, he said that our generation is inherently born with the freedoms – that we think it’s a given right, that we will not let it be taken away from us, and that’s something that other generations have not been able to have the privilege of.
We still of course are battling against human right issues every single generation. However, what that moment reminded me of in our generation was that, you know, our generation is the one that’s pushing for change that’s not just going to be here for the next couple of years. It’s the one that’s going to be here for generations beyond after, maybe 20 generations beyond after. It’s for making like an equal basis for everyone, understanding that, you know, equity is not just looking at right now but looking at 10 years in the future, 15 years in the future, things like that. We know what our rights are, and that can’t be taken away from us.
Allyn: Luis, what’s one thing that we should know about your generation that we probably don’t know?
Luis: I’d say the biggest thing is we’re resilient, right? And I think a second close to that would be resourceful, right? I think we find ourselves in a unique time, and we’re a generation with access to internet, access to social media, access to different resources, never been seen before, right? Resources generations before can only imagine of, right?
So I’d say with this ongoing pandemic, with this ongoing civil unrest, and I would say with this critical presidential election that we find ourselves in the coming months, I would say this generation is resilient, and I would say a close second to that would be resourceful.
Allyn: Great, thank you. Danielle.
Danielle: Yeah, I think building off of that resourcefulness, a couple questions I got were, “Why doesn’t your generation care? Why weren’t you guys protesting pretty earlier on during COVID?” I mean I think a lot of people were, but one big thing for me was understanding how big social media is and then also how big an impact you can have.
So I think understanding that advocacy and activism looks very different for our generation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as successful or not even potentially more successful.
I know during like, after the four weeks of George Floyd’s murder, my Instagram feed was full of spreading awareness, different causes, different petitions, different fundraisers. Anyway, that was completely unprecedented and I think completely kind of took over people’s lives in a positive way.
So I think just understanding that advocacy for us is different, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as effective.
Allyn: Cameron, you’ll have the final word.
Cameron: Our generation above all is vocal, right? There are things that my grandparents tolerated that my mother and father won’t tolerate. But to that same point a generation were moved and, our generation, we’re the same way. I’ve seen what my grandmother had to endure as far as civil rights and human rights. I’ve seen what my mother and father have done.
So now we come to a point where we’re coming of age, we’re kind of out of that weird purgatory of “you’re too young to do certain things and not old enough to do certain other things.” We’re coming to the front. We’re like, hey, we have access into Luis’ and Danielle’s point originally. We have so much information.
So with all of that is a level of “we’re not going to tolerate certain things because I can make it mainstream right now. Everybody’s going to listen and pay attention. Especially for the leaders that are on the call, we all have our individual platforms. We all have a brand that we uphold, a name that we live up to, and I feel like the majority if not all of the members of our generation have that same luxury. It’s something that we definitely need to take advantage of.
Allyn: Luis, Abhiraj, Cameron, Danielle, thank you for joining us on “Pod for the Cause”. We appreciate your insights.
Thank you for tuning into “Pod for the Cause”, the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit civilrights.org and, to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter @podforthecause. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five-star review. Until then, for “Pod for the Cause,” I’m Allyn Brooks-LaSure. Stay strong and keep hope alive.