We spoke with University of Minnesota Student Body President Abeer Syedah about her experiences serving in this leadership position and asked her what advice she would give to incoming student body presidents.
What issues did you run on? How have those issues come through during your term?
We ran on issues we felt we could complete or lay the groundwork for within a year and were driven by student government's student outreach data which, through my old role, I managed the execution of. This included seemingly simple asks like increased course information on our registration portal and more systematized initiatives like the move towards a restorative justice model.
Most of our platform items have been completed, like my BABY: increasing menstrual care products across campus. But also, we stated when we ran that we would shift our focus based on the asks of students, and we did. Some of our biggest projects this year weren't even platform items, but it is important to be responsive to what students need.
What have you found to be the most rewarding part of serving as student body president?
Unless you tell me to manage a literal nuclear war, there is no crisis I have not stumbled my way through. As twisted as that may seem, I think it is so rewarding to be 21, almost fresh out of college, and being so capable of managing any type of work. I know my skills, I know how to handle stress and controversy, I feel confident in my ability to execute good work in a sea of uncertainty. It makes me excited for a bigger challenge.
What has surprised you the most about serving in this leadership role?
How special and important student power is. As much as it's disillusioning to advocate for students in a system as broken as public higher education in the United States, there are some things only students can do.
Admin, staff, faculty, legislators, they're all beholden to different structures of control, whether it be their job hierarchy or the politics of their space. Students, though, can make a very honest, unapologetic kind of noise that many others want to be making but can't. While we are scrutinized and dismissed and ignored, we have the most opportunity to say what needs to be said because we aren't paid (usually) by our institutions, or anyone trying to buy our allegiance. And, when our University's headed down a dark path, we can be their worst nightmare: negative PR. We can reveal campus rape epidemics, demand changes to policies that keep out diverse students, create noise about student mental health crises, speak out against misguided financial priorities, and more.
I have had countless faculty, administrators, and staff thank me & my predecessors for bringing attention to something they felt like they couldn't.
Here I thought everyone was eager to ignore student governments' work.
What are some lessons that you learned from campaigning?
I learned I don't like it and never want to do it again because it can be treated like a big popularity contest for a resume booster. It's very easy for me, you, and everyone, to be driven by our implicit biases and not ask important questions of our potential leaders. It's a lesson I take with me into city/state/federal election season every time.
What are you most proud of from you term thus far?
A lot, thankfully! Most of it, of course, are our projects. But honestly, I'm most proud of our team. I spent a lot of time experimenting with how to build an organization that is healthy & well. I think, overall, we got there. Now, I'm excited for our initiative to fundraise for our campus's sexual assault prevention and response center (The Aurora Center) and draw attention to their funding deficit.
Did you face any obstacles because you ran with another woman and what were those challenges like?
I think Sam and I experienced a lot of the fundamentals of coded sexism, like uncomfortable meetings with men who spoke over us and explained our areas of expertise to us. But as two women of color, which hasn't happened before, and as a non-Greek ticket, which it's been a long time for, I think our intersections really brought some challenges. We knew that, when speaking to people, we were going the extra mile to combat their implicit biases and assumptions. We also knew our lives and upbringing would bring attention. But hey, as Olivia Pope said, you work twice as hard to be seen as half as good.
What piece of advice would you give to aspiring student body presidents?
Don't run if you think this job is glamorous or because it'll make your resume awesome. That's not only the wrong reason to run, it will not set you up for success.
Check in with the community: do you represent them, are you hearing their concerns, can you take their feedback? It will make you a stronger leader.
Don't be afraid of dissent or disagreement. Embrace it.
Know that you know nothing and own that. It's been almost four years and I still get sidelined with new information and new perspectives.
Talk to the people who have already done it. They can tell you what you need to hear and need to understand. And they've been through it. And they know it better than anyone.
Keep equity on the mind. Not everyone has the privileges we do. Use them.