By Shawn Pham | UC Riverside
I have spent almost half of my college life buried in books and far detached from my surroundings. In 2014, during my first year attending UCR, I observed a protest against tuition hikes where students were occupying the Chancellor’s office. That was the closest thing to a student advocacy affair that I looked upon until recent weeks.
Ever since I was little, I found systems fascinating; how things work together. I would ask adults questions like “how does rain work?” and “how safe are long-term municipal bonds?” There was a feeling of unease whenever components of a system were out of sight, hidden away and prevented me from seeing the big picture. This feeling lingered all throughout my college days: How does college work? Does the grand old legacy of an institution adequately support all the works that me and my peers toil over?
At UCR, one of the faculties I most admire is Dr. John Cook, the Director of Sustainability, who defines it perfectly when he says that the campus is a “living laboratory.” It is to imply that whatever for we do, there will be examples in the world to follow. I used this thinking to steer my understanding of the fundamental idea of college, but how does it function?
In August of 2016, my light summer schedule encouraged me to attend the UC Student Organizing Summit, an annual conference that inspires students to organize campaigns surrounding campus issues. Students are important components to how a college functions. And I figured that there was no harm in networking with more like-minded people.
The conference was thrilling. Within the span of two days and a sleepless night, campaigns were created to target issues on a system-wide level. I was a part of one of two campaigns that won the votes of the student congress. The first was one started by me and a few students from UCLA and UCSB called Sustain Our Students (SOS), aiming to combat student food and housing insecurities in sustainable ways. The second was Reignite which aims to diversify the UC system and ensure that marginalized students can graduate. The two campaigns will have two years to make their long lasting marks.
Returning from that conference, I walked through campus with a sense of belonging I had never felt before. I started tabling for student organizations, attending SOS committee meetings, and having more conversations with people than I normally would. Four weeks later, I was chosen by the UC Student Association to be a Student Advocate to the Regents (StAR). It was an opportunity for me to speak in front of the UC Regents about student issues on behalf of my campus. I did send in my application, but it was unclear to me why they chose me. I was not a part of student government at to that point; I wasn’t majoring in policy making…All I held was an idea of what is at stake in my community. To prepare, I read UC Office of The President reports, consulted with the Associated Students of UCR and Dr. Cook. With a full sponsorship of the trip (from flights to meals), I headed to UCLA where the conference was held.
The conference space was impressive; people working around the clock to meet the momentum of the occasion. Security was heavy for obvious reasons; from the president to all the chancellors, many of the most important people who make up the UC system were there. I got stopped and frisked for five minutes by two UCPD officers once. This was not a regular thing that happens to me, but I can merely imagine how frustrating it must be for marginalized groups to have to deal with it on a regular basis. Anyhow, the opening day was about the acknowledgement of the works done at the UC. I attended an open session of the Finance and Capital Strategies Committee which talked about the economic businesses of the UC (I love economics). Of course, only committee members can speak, which meant that I and many concerned others had to watch from the sideline (literally). The two and a half hour long meeting was composed of talks about the debts and self-finance issues the university faces since the Great Recession, State Capital Improvement Program, and private-public partnership plans.
UC campuses are growing with more students enrolling each year, but state capital can only fund safety building renovations and ensure enrollments. The Regents decided to involve private-public partnership to make housings and facilities available for students. During the discussion, committee members did not go to specifics on the possible “red tapes” that might come with private funded projects.
On the second day, I gave a one minute pitch to the Regents where I expressed my concerns about their project plans. I stated that with private-public housing, the UC must ensure that accessibility does not contradict the emphasis on affordability, that residents and student employees are protected under Title IX, and that new buildings must meet or exceed university and city standards of sustainability. There were at least a hundred people in the room, but not a sound. And to hear my own voice resonate on the walls was quite eerie.
I was able to have less stressful conversations with committee members at lunch time. A lot of the engagements had to do with listening to the members’ concerns. Staying quiet at times can be a great communication tool because the alternative of blabbing away the entire time about suggestions and ideas can quickly make people tired of your voice. I was able to assert my points and even took a break from UC topics to talk about food and travel.
In the end, many things about the conference can be improved, like creating a more inclusive vibe for non-committee members in the conversation. But the event demonstrated that the UC system can be consistent in its transparency; it is better now, than how it was in past years.
I can see how college functions a little bit clearer now. I can also see myself in my fellow students. We all want to protect our shared dreams and promises. I checked out of my hotel after the closing of the conference and wandered the Westwood neighborhood. There laid all the beauty and ugliness in the lives of those struggling and working toward the future. It was alive, this microcosm of the world. It breathed the September heat into every facet of society. I walked pass the infamous Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house opposite the Ronald Reagan Medical Center, then glanced at The Improv Space where creative minds expressed themselves, and finally stopped by a sandwich place to eat and watch the sunset over Gayley street.
Shawn Pham is an undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside majoring in global studies with an emphasis social, economic, and environmental sustainability (the triple-bottom-line). I currently serves as a peer advisor for international students for UCR Global Connection Program, committee member in Associated Student UCR, and a team leader, web designer, blog writer and editor for UCR Global Issues Forum. I hope to work with communities to enable people to develop the knowledge, values and skills to participate in decisions that will improve the quality of life in the present time without damaging the planet for the future.