We spoke to Ralanda Nelson, student body president at Brown University (2014-2015) and NCLC’s former deputy director, to hear about her leadership philosophy, insights into governance at Brown, and life post-presidency. Take a look and don’t forget to join us at our Campus Legacy Awards luncheon, where we will recognize the work of incredible student leaders like Ralanda!
How did your experience as student body president at Brown shape you as a person and as a leader?
My time as student body president at Brown formalized my activist persona and what I was willing to sacrifice because it forced me to be very public and very upfront about the things that were important to me and why they were important to me. Being so public about what I was passionate about, what I wasn’t as passionate about, how I was going to make things happen, see things change and bring people into conversations that I thought were being excluded from those conversations — it was a watershed moment for me. I framed who I wanted to be as a political person and a political entity. It allowed me to be as passionate in my convictions as I was and be unapologetic about it.
My time as student body president allowed me to be okay with failure in a public way that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with before. It was just a part of that experience. I don’t know if developing tough skin was what that did — because being a woman of color in a predominantly cishet, white male spaces, you have to have thick skin.
I don’t know if being student body president did that as much as life, but I do think that it forced me to be okay with failing on a public stage and be okay with hearing people’s opinions on that. It also allowed succeed and figure out how people felt about that too and decide what I was going to do with those opinions.
Do you feel that your sense of responsibility to the student body was changed by your personal identity?
I had to parse my identities quite a bit. There were opportunities and moments where as a black woman, I felt incredibly disrespected and incredibly silenced, but as a student body president that represented students that do not share the same identities with me, I still had to speak on behalf of them and I had to speak on behalf of my university as a whole and the Brown brand. There were moments where I had to make interesting decisions. I know there were often times where I could not be my full self.
I think [post-presidency], I’ve been able to do some interrogation around what that means for me if I’m ever going to have those experiences again should I want to run for public office in the future what I’m willing to push down, push back or suppress and what does being unapologetically myself in that particular type of context look like because political positions don’t necessarily lend themselves to you being your full self. You’re forced to be a representative, so if you’re only one thing to those people I believe that they think you have a diminished capacity to advocate on their behalf to the best of your ability.
I don’t know if I can answer this concretely, but I did struggle oftentimes as a campus leader being in the full magnitude of my magic and being in the full magnitude of my identity and being all of the different identities that made up who I am.
What platform issues did you run on? What do you think your biggest accomplishment was?
My main goal when I ran and then when I was student body president was to create the highest quality of life for Brown undergraduates at the lowest cost possible. I was really dedicated to not seeing tuition fees rise and having strategic conversations about need-blind admission for international and transfer students and being a fully need-blind school. I also wanted to fully engage with setting criteria and certain limitations on the creation of student groups so that the student groups that were in creation could be properly evaluated and vetted and space on campus wouldn’t be diminished or overcrowded to see that all student activities could be participated in without being constrained.
I wanted to incorporate students into decisions that needed student voice, for example, faculty tenuring processes. Having students present in those conversations in meaningful ways, particularly with hiring more faculty of color in terms of advising and mentorships in academia and within the undergraduate experience. Also, just grappling with the fact that at the time I was student body president, the university as a whole was shifting more toward a graduate student focus model and a more corporate model over the university college model and robust liberal arts education, we were deviating away from that and creating different schools. So, thinking strategically about how that impacted liberal arts education for all students and how it changed the culture of the university.
Would you say there is a strong system of shared governance at Brown? How would you rate the inclusion of student voice?
Taking a step back, I believe that Brown students had a lot of access to decisions and how they were made. So, when I think about the way in which the university decided to expose students to that, I think we had an incredible 360 view of what that looks like on our campus and inside our institutional governing processes.
Brown has a long way to go in terms of including student voice in a meaningful and impactful way. For example, as student body president I sat on what’s called the Brown Corporation, but I sit as an ex-officio non-voting member. It’s a position where I got to hear what was going on, but those meetings are also closed and there’s confidentiality that surrounds what goes on in those meetings. The minutes that are released from that meeting often omit the crux of the conversations and decisions that happen in those meetings. There were ways in which the university was like we want students at the table but we want them in the back row and we will ask them to leave at a certain point.
I worked a lot on emphasizing the fact that we have a young alumni trustee and how important that position is and raising the profile of the ways in which student voice was incorporated as well as we had a university appointments process where any student with any leadership experience on campus could apply in an open application process to serve on university committees where the crux of the work on student fees, tuition, governance, or faculty tenuring were made.
Often times, we would have those meeting times when exams were or when classes were so students were asked to make really important decisions around being a full student in the moment or if they have to be this quasi-committee member and need to miss something because they have an exam. It wasn’t always a student-centric model of student representation it often was a corporate model. It was from 9-5 and that’s when folks had other priorities.
I definitely think there were ways in which Brown was way ahead of some of our Ivy peers, but that we do have a long way to go in terms of ensuring that that voice is impactful and that it moves the margins. I think that was probably one of the things I was most proud of during my time at Brown, just letting people know I was unhappy that students weren’t being included in meaningful ways but rather they were being included in symbolic ways.
What piece of advice would you give to incoming student body presidents?
There’s nothing like the experience they’re about to have. Remember to be present and own that there are going to be some incredible highs and some really low lows. At no point should they stay in the depressing or fun pockets because the work is ever changing and being open to how quickly it might do so.
It’s also really important as a student body president to check in with yourself around your mental health and your capacity. Brown was a place, like some other schools, where student body presidents didn’t get support to be student body presidents. It was all volunteer leadership, so you were still required to be a full-time student, and if you were a work-study kid or had three campus jobs like I did, you still have to get your work done, you still have to go to those study sessions and be a part of group projects. It can get really hard to stop and ask yourself, “What do I need in this moment?” and really take care of yourself because that’s when your best and really innovative work gets done: when you’re actively taking care of yourself. I would remind anyone to be present and mindful of how you’re doing and feeling about things.
It’s an incredible thought experiment to be a student body president and the stakes are not the same and I’d encourage people to take risks. If things are unpopular, I’d encourage you to interrogate why and be excited about the fact that you get the opportunity and privilege to lead and it shouldn’t be taken lightly but you should inject fun and innovation into it whenever you can.
How did serving in this role equip you for your postgraduate success? What are you up to now?
My first job outside of college, I felt like they were underutilizing me because I was so used to working cross-functionally and I knew how to write proposals, present myself in professional meetings and I wasn’t scared to speak up if I had something important to say. I knew I should research who was going to be around the table before I got there. Being student body president is your first job in a lot of ways, so when you come into the workforce and you're working full-time, but you’re used to having these 20-hour days where everything you do is filled and you’re in meetings taking notes and making dossiers on people, and you know prospective donors, you’re doing all this incredible work in the nonprofit management space, but also in the corporate management and governance space that by the time you get to your first real job, not matter what it is, it’s pedestrian in some ways.
Being a student body president, there’s nothing like it because you get to be this rock star person, so going into the workforce is kinda underwhelming in some ways because you want to hit the ground running and you want to feel as alive as you felt in your role as student body president and often times work doesn’t always feel like that. It took me a really long time to get to what I feel like is purpose-driven work again like I felt student body president was.
I find myself in the nonprofit space, I actually work at the intersection of diversity and inclusion in STEM education, so still working in the higher ed realm, but I also do professional development work and I work on issues of representation with people of color. I’m a religious person so I feel that I was led here and that everything happens for a reason. Being student body president prepared me to be able and comfortable to ask organizations difficult questions about where they are and where they want to go and being excited about the mess of getting there.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons