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Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Leaders in UW System student governments share their goals for the fall semester from improving mental health services to expanding public transportation.

Back to school: UW System student governments strive to improve student life

As the Associated Students of Madison tackle the challenge of increasing mental health resources, UW-Platteville’s Student Senate works to improve public transportation on campus. 

While students in UW-Stevens Point’s Student Government Association work on campus relationships, UW-La Crosse’s Student Association has plans to increase sustainability projects.

Eight times a year, presidents and vice presidents of student governments from all 26 UW System campuses, known as UW System Student Representatives, meet to discuss the issues affecting their institutions and share solutions. It also serves as a space where student government representatives can collaborate at the state level. 

ASM Chair Laura Downer plans on working with student representatives again in the fall of 2019  on several issues affecting all Wisconsin campuses. 

“I anticipate Student Council taking another look at the implementation of a campus or statewide Medical Amnesty policy, the creation of a standard Student Medical Leave Policy, and addressing some of the tuition and segregated fee-related bills currently in the State Legislature,” Downer said in an email. “All of these policy goals require collaboration with other UW System schools.”

Each UW System school’s student government has its own set of responsibilities, including advising chancellors on matters involving student life, allocating student fees and appointing representatives, according to State Statute 36.09(5).

Student government leaders wield these abilities to address issues facing life at each of their individual campuses — and they all have a lot in store for this upcoming fall semester, covering topics from diversity initiatives to campus safety. 

Stout Student Association Vice President Christopher Johnson, for example, is working to fix insufficient lighting in certain campus areas. He said the SSA plans to achieve this through working with local government.

Government collaboration will also be key for student leaders at UW-Platteville, according to Student Senate Director of Marketing and Engagement Elliott Manuel. The Student Senate plans to improve public transportation on campus by having buses run later with more stops.

The difficulty with setting this program into motion, like many other Student Senate plans, will be navigating the regulations and communication processes with both government and administrative collaborators. 

“The biggest challenge we will face throughout the year is the amount of red tape that both senate and administration must go through to implement many of our initiatives,” Manuel said in an email. “Luckily, UW-Platteville has a great administration that is more than willing to listen to the needs of students.”

A positive dynamic between administrative leaders and students will be important for a successful semester at many campuses, perhaps most importantly at UW-Stevens Point.

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Last year’s controversial Point Forward proposal — initially setting out to cut 13 humanities programs before saving them in April — damaged relationships between student faculty and administration, according to Student Government Association President Morgan Jeidy. 

“We're kind of on the up-and-up of trying to repair a lot of those relationships,” Jeidy said. 

They also said SGA is focusing on “preparing to build new leaders” through recruitment and encouraging student government members to be more engaged in campus activities. 

“The best way to ensure that representation with student leaders is to have them really involved on campus and going to various student org meetings and events,” Jeidy said.

The Stout Student Association is also working on an initiative involving student organizations, according to Johnson. This proposal would create a space for specific student organizations to participate in the governing process. 

“We've got a lot of diversity clubs on campus,” Johnson said. “We've kind of been kicking around the idea of a 'diversity senate'-type thing — a smaller subsection where all the diversity orgs can get together and see what they would like to have done around campus.”

He hopes to get the diversity senate project started by the winter.

In the meantime, Johnson said the SSA has plans to make their own gatherings more accessible for everyone by trying to get microphones and ASL interpreters at meetings. 

Both the SSA and ASM at UW-Madison have plans to address the persistent lack of mental health resources on campus. Johnson described UW-Stout’s mental health center as “overrun,” and ASM spent the past academic year working on solutions to this issue.

Johnson said the SSA’s proposed initiatives range from general advocacy for more mental health resources to hosting a “play with puppies” day in order to reduce stress. 

Downer said ASM hopes to keep on the upward trajectory of last year.

“I believe it is imperative that we maintain the momentum around this campaign to see through the implementation of short term and long term plans to address the mental health needs of students,” she said in an email. 

A consistent obstacle ASM has faced in advocating for these resources is funding barriers, and this problem is not unique to UW-Madison, according to Jeidy. 

“One of the biggest problems that everyone within the UW System is feeling right now — just education in general — is that burden of budgetary restrictions,” they said. “I would say that money is the biggest reason why we don't do things and why we can't accomplish things sometimes.”

However, Jeidy said SGA made realistic goals for the upcoming year to overcome the “big hurdle” of financial strain. 

On the other hand, UW-La Crosse’s Student Association plans involve tapping into funds that have been underused on campus — the Green Fund. 

This money is collected through student fees to be put toward projects “that promote the ideals and practices of environmental sustainability,” according to the fund’s bylaws. Previous projects include 2015’s Green Bike Program and the distribution of reusable farmers’ market bags in 2017.

“[Students] pay $5 every semester into the Green Fund, and right now it's being underutilized,” Student Association President Sita Agterberg said. “So we are working hard to make sure that it is being used more.”

While working on these proposals for all their individual campuses, student governments prepare for the first UW System Student Representatives meeting Sept. 14, where campuses of all sizes can collaborate. 

“[Stout is] not one of the bigger universities, so we don't have too much sway when it comes to state-wide issues,” Johnson said. “[We're] just kind of doing our thing here, and then hopefully we can bring some of those ideas and concepts to Systems Reps and see what everyone else is doing, compare notes and see what we would like to do as a larger group.”

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