Behind the Gavel: A Look Inside a Student Senate Presidency

Senators+with+bears+from+Fall+2019+Student+Senate+Teddy+Bear+Drive.

Submitted by Sabrina Maristela

Senators with bears from Fall 2019 Student Senate Teddy Bear Drive.

Sabrina Maristela

OP-ED

In light of the Student Senate elections that are happening right now, and the very difficult 3-way election for executive president in particular, I’m offering these personal thoughts on the position.

(The following are personal reflections and are not the official reflections of the office of the presidency or the Student Senate. They are not meant to endorse any candidate.)

Being executive president of the AU Student Senate is a lot of things. It’s invigorating, it’s humbling, it’s frustrating, it’s terrifying, it’s eye-opening, it’s rewarding. People generally know that I get to bang the gavel, count votes, and speak to “important people.” They generally don’t know, however, that I don’t get to vote during meetings. This fact may seem odd, but it reveals what the position is and what it isn’t.

One of the preconceived ideas that I fought the whole year was the idea that whatever the president says, goes. While this may be true in some other organizations, the Student Senate is inherently representative and therefore cannot rest solely on one person’s shoulders. If it does, it loses all of its power and legitimacy. Yes, I call on people to speak in meetings, but that’s just to keep order as best we can with 40 people around one table. I very firmly believe that not even the senators alone should decide what happens, but that they should reflect what you, the students, want. I was so encouraged to watch student participation increase this year, and I’m excited to watch it grow even more.

Another part of being Student Senate president was communicating with university administration, faculty, and staff. I was constantly asked about “what students want/think/feel,” and sometimes I had to say “I don’t know.” I was often confronted with my limited view of things, and had to learn to not rely on my experience alone. A good portion of my time was spent talking to people about anything they want to tell me about. It was a definite change of pace for me, and I’m not sure I ever fully got used to it. But, to questions and concerns from both students and university officials, it was not my job to always have the answers, but it was my duty to faithfully find them.

However, my term wasn’t all talking to students and giving presentations. A huge part of my job was just putting people into contact with one another, planning meetings, sending reports, and reminding others about deadlines and projects. I spent hours a week doing the work that any club president does. Something I didn’t expect, however, was the amount of times I was asked “what do you think about ______?” It struck me that, while the president doesn’t actually make the decisions, something ingrained in us says that the president knows what to do. Even when I didn’t know what to do, or even didn’t naturally care for the issue, I had to very carefully consider the issue in order to make sure we treated it with the respect it deserved.

Learning to adapt to a workload that varied dramatically from week to week (sometimes from day to day) was also fairly unexpected. Sometimes we had almost nothing to discuss, sometimes a crisis came around that needed to be remedied in less than 24-hours, and sometimes it was a problem of minimizing damage already done. All senators can have this experience. I remember the chaos of returning to campus when the Eagle’s Nest made combos 25 cents more than a swipe could buy. It was my first week in my Finance & Facilities position, and it felt like instead of hitting the ground running, I was judo-flipped and stuck on the ground trying to get the grass out of my hair.

Some situations, however, took months to be resolved. The conversations about it are lengthy and often fairly heated, with outside conversations, planning, and negotiations happening the whole time. And sometimes, at the end of it all, no one is really happy. Learning to distinguish between perfect and prudent was essential to making real change and staying sane.

To fully convey all that I’ve learned, I’d like to offer up what I now think are the most important characteristics for a Student Senate executive president (even though I definitely did not execute these perfectly during my term).

Me after participating on the Student Senate’s Banana Splittin’ team – the Senate’s theme was “Roman Senate.”

1. A Servant’s Heart (and boatload of energy to go with it)
The president exists to serve, not dictate; and they should never assume entitlement to resources or privileges. Their energy – constant, unyielding, and especially powerful when it needs to be – should go toward ensuring student input and helping their fellow Senators. Additionally, the position is incredibly demanding physically, emotionally, and mentally because a president must understand that excellence is the standard. They must have the resources (time, energy, etc.) and skills to give the job their all.

2. Previous Experience
The senate life is full of policy, procedure, and regulation. The position will introduce the president to so many new processes and considerations that it is very important for them to already be familiar with and practiced at the duties of a senator, especially the duties of a senator on the Executive Board.

3. Coolness Under Pressure (and prudence at all times)
The president is called upon to do damage and crisis control more often than I’d thought, even if it’s a long-term project. They are receiving notes and opinions from many different sources at once, and need to be able to stick to their principles and remain respectful and collected in the face of (often emotional or harsh) opposition.

Election Season Bonus: It’s not all about the President anyway.
If you don’t know what to do about voting or are worried about it – don’t stress, it’s not all about the president anyway. They exist to serve the students and the Senate, and, collectively, the other senators actually have way more power. Support the person who you believe will be able to support, rather than dictate; who can listen more than they speak and act without needing to be seen.
Remember to exercise your right to vote for the 2020-2021 Student Senate! Voting will close at 5 p.m. on April 24th. The ballot can be found here (you must be logged into your AU google account to access it).