Commentary: Students in the dark about Student Government Association
Each Spring, the student body votes for representatives to serve on the Student Government Association. Just as the citizens of San Antonio will elect a mayor on May 6, students have the opportunity to vote for leaders who represent student interests on the campus of A&M-San Antonio.
Consider that a university campus is like a small city. It has an annual budget, a complex hierarchy of administrative leaders, buildings, infrastructure, roads, and dozens of staffed offices that oversee housing, academic affairs, student success, and thousands of individual financial aid disbursements.
Student Government, when effective, can do all the things the Constitution sets forth to help meet the needs of students. When ineffective, positions remain unfilled, requested copies of expenditures can’t be found, student leaders lack direction, and the campus as a whole is unaware that a voice exists to represent their interests.
Earlier this semester on April 6 students were invited to vote for their new 2017-2018 Student Government Association representatives. After the day-long election, an electronic voting system made available by Student Activities using JagSync, voter turnout was scarce. After voting closed, only 28 ballots were cast.
This two-digit number left student reporters scratching their heads wanting to know why, on a campus of more than 5,000 registered students, were only 28 votes cast? Weren’t students aware the elected candidates would be “the voice of the student body”?
We set out for some basic information such as how the association secures and uses its financial resources. How closely do they follow their constitution? And, because we are students in addition to reporters, we wanted to know how effective the association is at representing our interests. Essentially, we wanted to know if SGA is healthy and able to accomplish what it’s intended to do.
The campus news site set out to find the answer to these questions. But our initial questions quickly led to dozens more about the association’s role, responsibilities and overall relationship to A&M-San Antonio’s fast-growing student population.
Additionally, we discovered that votes cast on our campus actually exceeded the number of votes received at Palo Alto College, the community college from which A&M receives a high percentage of its transfer students. Erica Munoz, coordinator for Palo Alto’s Student Life Office confirmed 19 students voted in the Spring SGA election.
This information shed light on a pressing problem at commuter campuses and colleges in our area: low voter turnout and community involvement. We wanted to know why students are not participating, and have little knowledge about their student government.
The purpose of the SGA shall be:
To provide for the exchange of information, ideas, and opinions on behalf of the student body.
To review and make recommendations on matters proposed by students, administrators, faculty, and staff.
To promote cooperation and partnership among the students and the University faculty, staff, and administration.
To promote scholarship and the interests of student life.
To develop positive citizenship and leadership to the University and local community.
To understand what students know or don’t know about Student Government, we developed a survey of six questions and surveyed more than 80 students over a 5-day period in April.
The survey’s purpose was to get a better idea of who knew about SGA, but also find out what students want to know. First, we wanted to get a better idea of how many students could describe what the Student Government Association does on campus. Second, we asked students to provide feedback on what they specifically wanted to know about SGA. Finally, students were asked to list their concerns and how they want SGA to stay connected with them.
The results may surprise you.
From 80 surveys, 62 students said they are not familiar at all with the fact a Student Government Association exists on campus. Similarly, those students could not identify where the SGA offices are located, nor could they tell us what purpose SGA serves to the student population.
The remaining 18 students surveyed indicated they are somewhat familiar with SGA. In fact, 10 students said they knew about the election but didn’t vote.
Student Feedback & Recommendations
In a write-in portion of the survey, students showed a genuine interest in the association and how to both get involved and support the group.
Over half of the students surveyed simply wanted to know how SGA helps students, and what they do on their behalf. Many students also wanted basic information on how to get involved, scheduled meeting times and locations, as well as a who’s who in SGA leadership.
Asked to rank priorities, students overwhelmingly wanted SGA to advocate for issues that affect them on campus and off campus. The highest priority issues included parking, food service prices and childcare.
Students provided some suggestions on how the SGA can stay connected to them. With the usual suspects like email and social media being at the forefront, History junior Derek Kubacki suggested the SGA try hosting Town Hall meetings to get noticed by students. Biology Senior Cindy Aguayo thought a basic memo board dedicated to SGA information and announcements would be advantageous.
Although the SGA hosted two events last August called “Chillin’ with SGA,” there were no similar events hosted this semester. In addition, there is a memo board that exists in the game room located downstairs in CAB, however the SGA has not posted any information.
All in all, students had some reasonable suggestions, and expectations, on how to close the communication gap with student government.
The Elephant in the Room
Let’s face it: Although our student sample is small, it’s a representation of an overall disconnect between SGA and the students they are here to serve.
The numbers don’t lie. With only 28 votes received, along with one candidate for president who ran unopposed, it certainly appears there is little-to-no communication coming from the SGA overall in the 2016-2017 term.
But why take our word for it?
In an attempt to understand the current SGA climate, and get SGA’s take on these questions, we scheduled two interviews with now former SGA President Erick De Luna. Unfortunately, De Luna failed to keep either interview appointment, making it even harder for the news outlet to understand and report on SGA’s goals and initiatives.
So, what’s next?
As SGA transitions under the leadership of Mary Walker, let’s look ahead instead of backward. For a student government to thrive, elected representatives are needed, and according to the SGA Constitution, there are several positions still available.
Article II, Section I, of the SGA Constitution states that the Executive Branch should be complete with President, Vice-President, Recording Secretary, Public Relations (PR) Secretary, Treasurer, Parliamentarian, Historian, Senator Pro-Tempore, Student Organization Liaison and Legislative positions.
Joanna Benavides, the Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Success, and Dean of Students directly advises the association.
“All senators, president and vice president are elected by the student body. All other positions, including chief of justice, are appointed by president, but voted on by the senate. The recommendation is made and then voted upon, just like in our country’s government.”
Benavides also pointed out that the SGA Constitution was recently amended in March 2016 to allow for future growth which in turn provides a lot of vacant positions available to students who wish to participate.
Currently, there is a 2-semester election process in place that allows for as many positions to be filled in April. Because after the April election many of these positions may remain vacant, a second round of elections should be held in the fall to include incoming students. Benavides explained that a date for this second election has not been set, however students should watch for this to happen in late September, or first of October.
Vacancies do hinder the SGA. Especially when there are 4 seats per college, a Veteran Senator and Disability Senator and 1 Senator per class available to bridge student relationships with campus administrators and faculty. On a campus of more than 5,000 registered students, and counting, these seats should be easy to fill, but only if students know they can fill them.
The SGA touts they are the voice of the student body, however, in this case it seems the SGA not only needs to find their voice, but they need to make it roar. After all, that is what a Jaguar does.