Creating real change in any government is hard—UChicago’s Student Government (SG) is definitely no exception.
For some, the SG race is even treated as a joke; Delta Upsilon’s satirical slate, the Moose Party, for example, has run for the past 20 years trying to make a farce of the electoral process. But, this year, many students are beginning to see SG in a new light and are celebrating the recent election of its new Class of 2019 SG representatives.
In a College Council that has been historically dominated by men, all of the first-year reps are both women and students of color, addressing many students’ desire for a more inclusive campus. First-year students Megha Bhattacharya, Salma Elkhaoudi, Qudsiyyah Shariyf, and Paulina Torres raced to victory after a grueling campaign against 16 other highly qualified candidates. The implications of this win are not lost on these four women, despite just coming to the College only a few months ago. “We’re making history here,” says Bhattacharya.
Class representatives do exactly what their title implies—they represent and express the interests of their class year to University administrators and to Student Government. Representatives make up roughly half of the Student Government Assembly; they work mostly on the College Council, the primary governing body of the undergraduate division of Student Government. The newly elected representatives believe that they reflect the desires of the Class of 2019. “People were [primarily] looking for relatability,” says Elkhaoudi. “We were relatable students that could represent our class.”
So who are these class representatives? And why would they choose to run—especially so soon after arriving at college?
Coming from a low-income and minority background, Paulina Torres was afraid of the transition to a top university. “I came from a high school that was filled with students like me. Coming to an elite school, I felt isolated.” She didn’t know what to expect at UChicago or how she would adjust to the demands of university life. But, her participation in Chicago Academic Achievement Program (CAAP) eased her transition, making her more comfortable at the school and even shaping her Student Government platform.
CAAP is a seven-week summer program providing incoming first-years from low-income backgrounds the chance to engage with the University on an academic and social level. CAAP participants can take core-level classes, meet one-on-one with faculty and advisors, and learn about everything the College has to offer. “[CAAP] made [me] more comfortable with the University,” said Torres, who also met fellow representative Salma Elkhaoudi during the program. “I made so many new friendships [and] connections.”
Her background as well as her experiences with CAAP shaped a platform that stressed increased inclusion of minorities on campus. “Being on Student Government, I feel like I’m a voice for the voiceless.”
Torres ran on a platform of social justice and governmental transparency, policies she thought would resonate greatly on campus. To Torres, her win showcases a shift in the voice of the UChicago student body towards inclusion and social justice. “Being on [College Council] is very empowering and speaks volumes for what the student body wants to see,” she says.
Salma Elkhaoudi has always been passionate about student government, holding different leadership positions throughout high school. At UChicago, in addition to adjusting to her classes and to her life as a first year College student, she immediately dived headfirst into trying to solve institutional problems on campus and within SG itself. “I knew that SG had been so male-dominated. If I wanted to see some change, I had to do it myself. I couldn’t wait for somebody else to do it.”
Like Torres, her campaign was influenced by her experiences with CAAP. “CAAP was a saving grace,” adds Elkhaoudi, “I could not imagine being [in Student Government] without it. [The program] brought under-represented minority students to a place where they could be in a position to affect change.”
The summertime exposure to campus life was instrumental to understanding what students—especially minority students—would want most out of their government. “CAAP allowed me to relate to others who were in the same boat,” she says.
Elkhaoudi wants to make sure that every student feels comfortable on campus to speak their minds. A student’s gender or their minority status shouldn’t make them feel discouraged or as if their university or student government won’t listen. She hopes that her win will encourage more students of color to speak up about their concerns to Student Government . “It’s important to feel that every student has a voice,” she says.
More than anything, Qudsiyyah Shariyf is concerned about issues revolving around social justice. She hopes to use her position on College Council to encourage students to further engage with members of Hyde Park and of the South Side as a whole.
Although not from Chicago originally, she is extremely well versed in the problems facing the South Side. Part of her education on the subject comes from her participation in Chicago Bound, an eight-day pre-orientation led by the University Community Service Center and the Institute of Politics that promotes community awareness and civic engagement. Students have the opportunity to visit diverse neighborhoods throughout Chicago, learn about complex urban and social issues, and meet with community residents and leaders.
For Shariyf, the program taught her how to initiate real governmental change at the University. “I’ve always been interested in social justice,” she says. “Doing Chicago Bound allowed me to take those interests and bring [them] to this new city I was in. Chicago Bound made me think about how as a member of the University I am not only responsible for impacting the University but Hyde Park as a whole.”
Having been on student governments for most of her life, Megha Bhattacharya is excited to continue that tradition at UChicago. Her experiences with leadership positions have been a large part of her life and upbringing. “I have been doing student government since the fourth grade. I couldn’t imagine my life without it. I love trying to work towards a common goal with other people.”
Prior to the most recent elections, the College Council had nine male representatives and only three female representatives. The fact that all four incoming representatives are female, then, brings some much needed balance. While she was running for office, Bhattacharya initially expressed concern that people on campus would claim that she was using her gender and her status as a minority as a ploy to gain more votes. But, winning the election in first place seemed to dispel these concerns. “Everybody’s been super supportive,” she says.
Although she did not participate in any pre-orientation program like CAAP or Chicago Bound, Bhattacharya was still able to get a sense of campus and interact with her fellow classmates, learning about what issues were most important to them. “I was very involved with the student body before we ran,” says Bhattacharya. “I found that they wanted transparency and efficiency, just like [I did].”
Transparency is a huge issue for Bhattacharya and for her fellow representatives. All four women want to make sure that all students are able to understand how their student government and university administration work.
Whether their platforms or ideals were shaped through a University program or through their previous experiences with student government, all four women now believe that they’re bringing the right issues to the forefront. But they can’t solve all of these problems alone. In order to effect meaningful change, they need to know what the student body wants out of their university.
“UChicago provides so many great resources so we do have the potential to change things, we just need the student body to have a louder and more aggressive voice,” says Elkhaoudi. “So please email us if you have anything to say or anything you want changed.”