SGA candidates discuss their positions

By Daniel Hall – [email protected] – Staff Writer | March 25, 2015 |
UNC Asheville’s Student Government Association has a new incoming administration.
Over the course of a hectic week of campaigning and debates, candidates contended for positions including president, vice president and a number of senatorial seats. Students cast their votes through a website on March 4-5, and so decided on their new student government representatives.
Student participation in the elections was relatively low. Last year’s elections attracted about 800 voters, while barely a quarter of that number participated this time. Leigh Whittaker, senior vice president at the UNC Association of Student Governments, expressed disappointment with the turnout.
Whittaker said a common opinion among students is the association is not particularly important. But she pointed out one of the student government’s greatest areas of influence, by occupying a seat on the Board of Trustees, is in decisions regarding tuition and fees, which students would do well to take an interest in.
She said she can understand the perception, and that it is not unique to UNCA. Elections tend to attract less voter participation as they become more localized, with presidential elections achieving a far greater turnout than municipal elections, and student governments sitting even lower on that totem pole. Though she noted this pattern does not make a lot of sense under scrutiny, as the more local a government is, the more likely it is to have an appreciable effect on the voter’s life.
A private inauguration will take place at the end of the month, at which point the member-elects will effectively transition to their new roles.  A public event will be held on April 15, open to anyone who wishes to attend.
The new president-elect is Maya Newlin, a junior from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, studying political science and sociology, who plans to pursue hospital administration upon graduating. She is a student ambassador, founder and president of Shades of Color, an online multicultural newsletter, and is involved with the Black Student Association. As president, her powers include appointing executives devoted to a number of distinct areas, and serving as a voting member on the Board of Trustees.
One of her top priorities as president will be the promotion of diversity at UNCA. To that end, her first major project will be finding a new space for the Intercultural Center.
“That would be the greatest thing for my multicultural exec to start on initially,” Newlin said, “and then we can start working on smaller things that are easier. But trying to find out how we are going to properly advocate for this space is a big thing for me.”
Newlin said she would also like to improve communication between the departments and students, as well as between other departments. One way she said this could be achieved is by regular departmental newsletters, detailing the initiatives they are working on. She said there is plenty of undergraduate research underway, and separate departments are often unaware of what the others are doing. It would also hold value for prospective students, who could see what kind of work the university is involved with, and make their decision on that basis.
Part of Newlin’s platform was bridging the gap between UNCA’s athletics and academics. She said athletes should be encouraged to take a greater role in student organizations and responsibilities, to become better integrated with the rest of the student body.
“Especially since the majority of our students of color are athletes,” Newlin said.
She said athletes have their own, separate student orientation, and are discouraged from taking on too many responsibilities outside sports. She would also like to enlist coaches in changing this, in support of  their students in academic affairs.
Transparency is another item on the agenda going forward, for both Newlin and her vice president-elect, Mark Flack.
Flack, a junior sociology major from Hickory, explained what transparency meant to him.
“A problem I’ve seen and felt as a student and as an RA,” Flack said, “is no one really knows what the student government does, what they’re there for, what sort of things they advocate for and work on. And even who your elected officials are, who represents you and your interests. And I think that’s a big problem.”
To solve this, Flack said he wants to make himself and his fellows at the Student Government Association accessible to the student body. Making office hours clearly known is a part of this, as well as conveying a welcoming atmosphere. He said the association’s social media presence could also be improved to communicate with students more effectively and keep them informed.
“That’s what transparency means for me,” Flack said. “That it’s transparent enough that you know who I am, you know what we’re working on, who we’re working with, and you’re able to come in, to recognize me, to see me, to feel comfortable talking to me about the things that you feel passionate about.”
Other priorities for Flack include improving accessibility for students with disabilities, awareness of mental health issues and prevention of suicide and self-harm.
Meanwhile, one of three new senior senators, Corey Lea, a junior from Roxboro, North Carolina, studying atmospheric sciences, said he will focus on establishing awnings for the smoking areas around campus, to protect students like himself from the weather. Lea was on the student council in high school, and said he has always had a love for leadership.
Olivia Dobranowski, a junior Spanish major from Raleigh, will serve as one of the new residential senators. She said senators will come together in weekly senate meetings to discuss their individual projects and activities. She will also act as a liaison for students and faculty members,  bringing concerns to the student government. Dobranowski is not new to the association – she served as junior senator in the prior administration.
She said working with the organization provides a macro-perspective of university life and how its various components fit into the big picture.
“It just opens your eyes to what you can do on campus,” Dobranowski said, “because with SGA, students can do a lot.”
Dalton Nickerson, one of the new junior senators, is a sophomore from Chattanooga, Tennessee, studying mathematics and computer science. He said one of his major responsibilities is keeping himself apprised of students’ needs. As a resident assistant, like many of the members of the new administration, he is well positioned to do this, along with his involvement in a number of student organizations.
One of Nickerson’s priorities is sexual violence prevention, in supporting organizations devoted to that cause and spreading awareness of the issue. And, like other members, he said students should not hesitate to bring problems to his attention, so that he can work to resolve them.
“All I have to say is I’m here if you need anything,” Nickerson said. “I mean, I’m supposed to represent the student body, so I’d definitely like to extend an open invitation for anyone who’s facing any sort of problem with their experience at UNC Asheville. I’m here to listen and try to improve that situation.”