We spoke with University of Notre Dame Student Body President-Elect Rebecca Blais about her advocacy work and campaign experience. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, she even shared some of the most exciting campus traditions of the Fighting Irish!
What issues did you run on last year? How have those issues come through during your term?
The number one issue that I ran on with Corey was sexual assault. We ran on a five pillar platform — sexual assault, diversity and inclusion, community engagement, health and wellness, and sustainability. And actually, all five of those remained the same when I ran again this year. Something that I found through my work with other universities is that those same five issues are the big topics at all schools. But, the number one issue for us has always been sexual assault and, of course, diversity and inclusion. The difference between last year and this year, last year we were campaigning on rape kits. I had experience with the committee for sexual assault prevention. I think last year we put in everything we could and we achieved everything we set out to achieve for the most part, but this year, we were able to do three times as much and take all of these things to the next level.
We did a lot of survivor advocacy — the thing that we are most proud of us setting up the first-ever sexual assault survivor support group. This is something that Notre Dame students were told wouldn’t be possible, a peer to peer support group. This was a huge step in the right direction. We were able to invite survivors from our neighboring schools, St. Mary’s and Holy Cross, and this group has really grown.
What have you found to be the most rewarding part of serving as student body vice president?
The whole experience is so rewarding — it’s my favorite thing in the world. I get to work with the most incredible people and that is the best part. Something Corey and I were looking for last year when we were picking our team is autonomy and we wanted a team of all-stars who were all experts in their policy areas. And we looked for it and we definitely got it. Seeing what they have been able to accomplish is so inspiring to me. I wouldn't have run this year without their support and their motivation. Also, seeing a lot of leadership growing in student government [has been rewarding]. As VP, I got to work with the student senate that is primarily composed of sophomores and some juniors. Seeing the difference between them last April when we took office to now when they are transitioning new people into their roles, they’ve grown a lot, gotten to know about the inner workings of the university and they are ready to make change.
What has surprised you the most about serving in this leadership role?
I don’t think I expected it to work out as well as it did. Last Spring when I was looking at everything stack up, I started to panic a little bit because it’s an insane amount of hours. But, we had all summer to prepare and Corey and Michael were on campus doing a lot of work on campus to start meetings with administration and get the ball rolling. When we came back in the fall, it was a whirlwind, but everything was able to be balanced. It was very surprising to me — I had the best semester of my life because the team was working so well, everybody was performing a hundred and ten percent the whole time.
What are some lessons that you learned from being on the presidential campaign trail?
The biggest takeaway from this last campaign is that I just had to completely had to change the way that we campaigned. So last year we went to every single dorm on campus and knocked on their dorms and told [students] about our five pillars and [students] would pick a pillar and we would tell them our policy. This time, when we went around, the nature of campaigning shifted in this past year and I think that is in part because of the presidential campaign. So instead of doing what we did last year, Sib and I changed up our strategy so we could go around to all of the dorms around on campus and we would say, “Look we have this platform, you can read about it online, but our question for you is — what is one thing that you would change about Notre Dame?” And if it was on our platform, then we could talk about it, and if not, we would take notes, develop their idea with them and try to make it happen [...] to the point where we ended up releasing an [extended] platform at the end of the campaign that was filled with ideas from the students. That was the biggest thing.
Even though you are campaigning again and it is still you, you can’t get away with doing the same thing and I think it would have been immature to not acknowledge the change in culture and the shift in campaigning that was necessary. So, that was a huge shift and it was really rewarding to hear people’s ideas and work them on now.
How do you believe your experience as VP will impact your term as President?
The lessons that I have learned this year have helped me get to know the system and the structure of student government and the administration so well where now I enter into the new role, I’m pushing to restructure everything and completely redesign how we pick our cabinet and how we function as a student body and as a student government and with the administration as well.
The biggest part of that is that we have already formed all of the relationships, especially with the administration. We don’t have so much of a learning curve anymore. Before, even though I was in the executive cabinet, we still had so many meetings to go to and so many people to sit down with. But Sib was the Chief of Staff..we’ve already established those contacts and those relationships. We don't have to go and get to know people. We can just email them or call them and start talking to them about the moves we want to make. I think that is the biggest way being VP has impacted being President, getting to skip ahead.
I think one of the skills you have to learn as VP is to listen. I’m a very good active listener and I think that is a valuable skill to bring to the office of the President.
Did you face any obstacles because you ran with another woman and what were those challenges like?
It was definitely challenging. Beyond the two of us, we tried not to talk too much about us both being women. We tried to brush that off...if we did run into challenges with people with sexist remarks, we tried to overpower them.
That was the biggest thing. When people would bring up the fact that I asked my VP, who is a female...then I would simply say “I didn’t ask her because she is a female. I asked her because she is the best person for the job.”
Tell me about some of your campus traditions. What are some of your favorite?
One of my favorite traditions is the alma mater. After every football game, win or lose, the team runs over to the student section of the stadium. We link arms and we sing the alma mater and it’s a really unifying way to end any game. We so many traditions — it’s a lot to take in! Another fun one is our Notre Dame Glee Club [...] you get a phone call at 11:30 or so asking you to come to the dome at midnight. If you show up at midnight, a huge club of glee club boys will run in and start singing to you.
After a football game, if we win, everyone runs through Stonehenge, which is a memorial and a fountain on campus. Everyone runs through there and that’s an age-old tradition.
On St. Patrick's Day, a lot of students will skip that class day or get out of class that day and go celebrate together. Everybody wears green, it’s pretty spirited. We get super into it. If you stay on campus for Easter, that’s pretty exciting. There is a morning mass on Easter and the day before there is an afternoon Mass. Anyone entering their Catholic church goes with their sponsor. You have to line up for the mass three four five hours early. It’s all really exciting.
What’s the history behind your mascot?
It wasn’t always the leprechaun. From what I understand, it used to be a terrier. We used to have a terrier that would come on the field. From the legends that I have heard, people used to make fun of our school and call us the Fighting Irish because we had so many Irish Catholics coming to this school. So our school embraced it and made it our mascot! But, that’s just a legend.
Cover photo source: University of Notre Dame website
Photo of outgoing student body president Corey Robinson and Rebecca Blais: The Observer
Photo of Sibonay Shewit and Rebecca Blais: Blais-Shewit Campaign
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.