Defending Student Leaders- a note to the haters

A few days ago, a good friend sent a sarcastic note to me about how our program could possibly live without our eight-member student governing board. It was sent in the middle of elections as we transitioned into a new board. As a former and current student in a “leadership position,” I am used to hearing criticism and how we do nothing and like to throw around phrases like “representing the community.” Criticism is second skin to those who run campaigns and get elected to be the X position of a student-run body. Popular media has done a good job of presenting student elections as nothing more than a power trip for candidates who are riding on their egos and talking the talk so that they can put something on their resume. Once elected, they swim in their popularity and host pizza parties to bring people closer together when really it is bunch of friends of friends using fundraising budget for fun. Stereotypes don’t come out of nowhere, so there is a degree of truth to the kinds of students that run for and serve on student bodies. However, such discussion takes away from the actual work that many of us do, and all the failures that we face on the way. Those doors really do slam you on the face.

I have been a student leader since I was fifteen, serving in editorial teams and student councils, from my suburban, mostly-white high school in Arizona, to my East Coast women’s liberal arts college, to my current graduate program that is more than half international. Yes, I have included these positions in my resume and have of course, talked about them in my interview (favorite answer to questions like, how do you manage time?) 

Criticizing any governing body is the basis of our political system. However, I think that at the micro, school organization level, some clarifications must be made for the haters:

Keep the criticism to us as a leader, not as a person

Don’t worry about hurting our feelings.  If you want to criticize, take a moment to talk about us in our respective role, rather than us as individuals, your classmate, roommate, or basically, a real person. I know it is hard to see us outside our roles and you love putting us in a hoity-toity box, but we volunteered to be in this position. Like the way we keep work separate from personal, do the same when you don’t like our last happy hour event or the roundtable that you could not get a seat for.

Student Events are not organized out of the blue. We are all part of a bureaucratic system.

What organizations don’t reveal is the amount of failure that we must go through before landing something. This year, me and the Vice President of our organization ran the program-wide election for the next board, which included issues with our information systems (we are our own IT guys). Often, a member must take on the responsibilities of another member and forgo their own objectives. Example: arranging a social event for the program and overriding board members’ opinions, managing human resources, understanding the budget, and continuously negotiating with staff, graduate office, vendors, DJ, etc. Sometimes, we just can’t be transparent about our budget because we ourselves are trying to figure things out to the best of our abilities. I am not asking for some slack, but just some thought into the fact that nothing happens magically.

Student Leaders cannot represent everyone.

While not being able to represent is an issue, many do try. At my current program, we have a diverse student body by race, nationalities, work experience, age, academic interests, and professional goals. Not all of the workshops on professional development or international panels will attract everyone. The privilege of being in a diverse institution is being able to learn from each other- we foster this through micro-level event planning and outreach coordination. Perhaps the issue is that not all of us in our personal backgrounds are relatable to the greater student body- can anyone represent everyone, really? Thus, it is important to think about the fact that some of us, if not most, do try, and must try.

Not all of us are driven by the resume factor

Of course being able to say that you were in some position of an organization helps your resume. As we enter an increasingly competitive academic and professional landscape, individual leadership is one of the ways that applicants try to distinguish themselves. However, it is easily forgotten that once a student is in a position of power, he or she actually has to do things that are required of that title. How an elected leader will practice managing his or her role is an issue for debate but no one gets in a position (especially when it is from a campaign perspective) by being idle. It is a bit offensive to be told, whether jokingly or not, that I am only after polishing my resume– it discounts the fact that some of us are actually students, still taking classes, and voluntarily doing this for because we, to some degree, want to spend hours working for our program (that could otherwise be spent on a longer nap).

We are all also students, just like you.

Student leaders have to be able to manage school, leadership positions, as well as their social life, and personal care (Shower? Sleep? Lunch?), giving us lots of time to complain about our work, too. If I am unable to fulfill an obligation or do not respond to an email in time, maybe it is partly me being a bad leader. Or, maybe it is because I have midterms, too. Leadership positions complement my studies; it does not take over it. Especially at the graduate level, when we are all adults and have had some real life experience, I wish that this hierarchy of priorities could be understood. We are all also paying for an education (and getting into massive debt on the way) so that we can learn from the same classes that you complain about, too.

***

Student government exists because people want to be represented. You need certain people to build webs between stakeholders in an academic institution. Complaints and critiques are part of human nature. As I end my term as the Outreach Chair of the Cornell Public Affairs Society, I don’t expect that people will remember what I did or we did as an organization, and I don’t want that. But for most school leaders who worked hard as a group for a year and through the summer break, admit that at least, some of us are trying. If anything I have learned the power of communication and I hope that for the next generation of student leaders, continue doing what you do—use the criticism to better yourself (and at the same time, do learn to respond to those emails fast).

 

 

 

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