We spoke to Celia Wright, student body president at The Ohio State University (2014-2015), to see what she’s up to now post-presidency. Take a look and don’t forget to join us at our Campus Legacy Awards luncheon, where we will honor the work of tremendous student leaders like Celia!
How did your experience as student body president at Ohio State shape you as a person and as a leader?
Being student body president gave me an opportunity that a lot of students don’t have, which is leading peers on projects that take place outside the classroom, projects with real-world implications. Some of the work we did in student government resulted in hiring new employees or reorganizing how we trained people and there were serious consequences to our advocacy. So, having the chance to lead that allows you to lead peers in situations where the results matter. It puts your leadership to a test and creates stress — but in a good way. The pressure I underwent in that role made me a stronger person and helped me discover some of my strengths and some areas of improvement as well.
When you ran you and your running mate were the first dual women ticket elected. Why do you think representation matters in elected office?
Representation matters because having representation of certain groups allows people from those groups to envision themselves occupying those positions themselves. It was a stretch for me to run as a woman because there were no women leaders of student government in my time as a student at Ohio State. We hadn’t had a female student body president in seven years so I could only imagine myself in that role. I wasn’t like a lot of my predecessors because I was female and there are other traits that come with that just stereotypically. I had to imagine someone like myself occupying that status and also occupying that position of power which is hard to do without an example. Representation matters because it creates an example and shows others in those underrepresented groups that they can also achieve those exciting positions.
What were your expectations going into office? What successes or challenges surprised you about serving as student body president?
My expectations were to accomplish as much of our platform as we could. We were specific in outlining a lot of our goals and I knew we wouldn’t necessarily complete all of those things, but I knew if they hadn’t been started, I wanted to get the ball rolling. Where the ball already was rolling, I wanted to keep it rolling and ideally, have the projects finish by the time my term ended.
One of the surprises we had was the shifts in the priorities of our goals. We ran with addressing sexual violence as one of our goals, but at the time it was one of many goals and it wasn’t the number one goal.
I think that area, sexual violence, was one where we had an immediate and large impact in how things happened at Ohio State. We had a sexual violence task force that researched the issue and we created tangible recommendations that were implemented at the university level, like hiring six new staff members and requiring all 50,000+ students to be trained. I didn’t see that coming when we ran. The opportunity just happened to fall into my lap with the It’s On Us campaign and the tide of national momentum on that issue which helped us to be effective in advocacy. What surprised me is the degree to which outside momentum ended up shaping our agenda and helping us to accomplish things we didn’t even think was possible when we ran.
You made a lot of progress on the issue of sexual assault. What was the biggest obstacle you faced when working on this issue?
The biggest obstacle to activism in this area is entrenched in rape culture and the idea that there isn’t a problem. First, you have to convince people that there is a problem and second you have to convince them that the problem can be addressed through the university. Both of those are challenging. We had faculty partners who we worked closely with and who we got along with who also espoused regressive views on gender roles and what sexual assault could be and how it could be prevented. Being advocates required us to show them our perspective, which I would describe as the more modern perspective. We had to convince them the problem was real could and should be addressed by the university. The biggest challenge was entertaining the more outdated perspective on sexual violence and responding to them with evidence and personal stories that contradicted some of those notions.
What are you most proud of from your term?
There are lots of policy accomplishments that I’m proud of but I think what I’m proudest of is not our accomplishments, but rather our ability to empower younger members of the organization to create institutional memory within student government so that the next several years of USG were productive even after we were gone. A lot of time, people that assume the role of student body president lose sight of the manpower of their organizations and the importance of not just accomplishing their platforms, but of creating an organization that will stand on its own when they graduate by giving attention to younger members of the organization so that the legacy of accomplishing platform points will continue. Students feel empowered and included when they’re part of that.
How did serving in this role equip you for your postgraduate success? What are you up to now?
It helped me in a lot of ways. It created a lot of high-stress situations whether it's due to burdens to my schedule with time or it's due to entertaining stakeholders that were at much higher levels of power than I was or trying to develop a consensus among a body of students that is very diverse. Those things helped me and gave me constructive skills that can be conveyed in job interviews, there are a lot of transferable skills that come from managing peers and that can be how you lead meetings or how you manage a project or how you resolve conflict in a workplace.
Right now, I’m in grad school pursuing a masters in public health and I hope to work in global public health after I graduate, ideally working in low-income countries abroad.
What advice would you give to recently elected student body presidents based on your own experiences?
My advice is to not lose sight of your peers who got them where they are. It’s an incredible feat to be elected and it wouldn’t be possible, at least at most schools, without the motivation of an entire campaign of peers who aren’t getting paid and aren’t necessarily getting real personal benefit from the success of the election who are willing to come out for you and get people to vote. It’s important to remember them not just to be nice but to harness the energy of the entire organization toward a platform and toward creating an energy that will continue beyond your own graduation and will allow student government to continue to accomplish its goals.
Photo courtesy of Celia Wright.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.