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Calvin College Chimes

The role of student senate

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As the student senate election approaches once again we all begin to ask ourselves who we are going to vote for, who is going to be the next leader of the student body and who is the most inspiring and motivational young figure on the Calvin College campus. Or not. In truth there are a lot of mixed opinions about student senate and its role.

Talking with different students, I’ve gotten a wide spectrum of views of student senate. Some students honestly just don’t care about senate; they aren’t opposed to student senate, it’s just they could care less about an institution they see as either wholly irrelevant or unintrusive on their college experience.

Some students see student senate as useless or ineffective in enacting change, but is a potentially positive way for students to get involved in student life. I spoke with junior Mark Peless, who is the online editor for Chimes, for his thoughts of the student government: “I admire the ambition shared by our senators. Sometimes I think the ambition, especially during election time, is more dream than reality. Student senate doesn’t have nearly as much power to make a difference in the community than they think they do, and that creates a disconnect between the students and our ‘representatives.’ That can be taken negatively, but I think it’s just a realistic perspective.” He additionally noted that he did think some of the things student senate works on are underappreciated.

Still others see student senate as an organization with some level of potential for positive change, but are skeptical of what actually happens. I caught up with a senior, Jeiel Burrell, graduating this May for his thoughts on student senate:

“If run correctly it [student senate] is a great organization for communication and leadership, but whether that actually happens is the question.”

And others are much more optimistic and idealistic about the relevance, role and potentiality for enacting change on the Calvin campus.

I think that for some, they see change as an important part of Calvin, while others look around Calvin and don’t feel the urgency for major change. We have a beautiful campus, a decent dining hall and the architecture is far from ugly (mostly). There are no students going hungry, sleeping in the parking lots or living in the conditions many impoverished people have suffered through. Students aren’t lacking in opportunities to be spiritually ministered to or opportunities to engage in worship, nor are they wanting for social services like Broene counseling, health services, the career center, the center for student success, the Rhetoric Center and many others.

For these students they experience a disconnect when they hear some of the campaign messages, slogans and promises which they view as either lofty and unrealistic or addressing issues they don’t think are in need of being addressed.

Others have a positive, but more realistic view of student senate’s functions; their skepticism is more to do with structure of the institution. I caught up with Purun Yeo, a sitting student senator. When I asked him about the positivity and effectiveness of the senate on campus, he responded with: “I think that student senate is an important and vital part of Calvin’s campus. However, it has some structural problems,” Yeo went on to elaborate, “An example would be the organization of teams within the senate by year and how at times this structure led to weaker communication.”

He continues: “Despite its structural shortcomings, I believe that student senate accomplishes many things on campus. This goes unrecognized, sadly. Many students on campus do not appreciate senate’s accomplishments simply because they are unaware. I believe that senate should be more active in publicizing its actions and achievements. In addition, students should understand that it takes time for projects to be completed and actualized because of the amount of communication and approval it requires. Therefore, although senate can be slow and inefficient at times, I believe that it is constantly evolving to be a better, positive influence on campus.”

As I reflect on the many views I’ve heard as well as what I’ve observed I’ve come to the conclusion that student senate has a valuable role, but only if you have the right perspective. If you see student senate as an avenue for radical change, then you’re kidding yourself. With relatively little power, student senate doesn’t really function as a strong democratic institution on campus. This is no fault of their own, nor is it necessarily a bad thing, it simply is. So for me I view the senate as an excellent place for young leaders. For young people hoping to go on to be leaders in business, politics, and culture this is great for gaining experience in the process of campaigning for a position and self-advocating in a public setting. It’s also excellent for giving them some level of experience with feeling of public leadership and holding an administrative position.

In conclusion, if your perspective of student senate is framed for lofty or radical change, then your overall view is likely to be negative. However, if you realistically understand that it can enact only limited change, and instead view it as a rather excellent avenue for leadership and governing experience as well as resume building, then student senate can be viewed in a more positive light, albeit one that might need a little restructuring and re-strategizing in its messaging.

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