Presidential Profile: Anushka Sarkar, University of Michigan

NCLC: What issues did you run on last year? Are there any projects that you plan on spending your time on during the summer in preparation for the start of the academic year?

AS: My running mate and I ran on a platform comprised of two categories of projects – short term projects, which we called “Initiatives”, and long term projects, which we called “Advocacy.” Our platform was built to represent the reality of concurrency in governing, wherein you have to do programming and short term work alongside investing energy in the wonkier policy and advocacy work that extends beyond your term.

 One of the most difficult aspects of this position is managing competing interests of the people that you represent. I represent 45,000 students, each of whom has different lived experiences and expectations of their elected representatives. Among the various issues that we will take on over the next year as representatives, I personally am most invested in our campus climate and student health and wellness. Campus climate is a difficult issue to tackle, and sometimes student government is not the best vehicle through which to take on certain aspects of campus climate, but we’re working to figure out what are the areas in which the representative body can be an effective and powerful institution. Similarly, students’ health is of utmost importance, and it is certainly a representative body’s job to protect, promote, and streamline the resources – both existing and needed – for students to maintain their wellness.

NCLC: What do you think makes your student body unique?

AS: I am consistently humbled by the spirit of activism and advocacy on our campus, no matter the issue or the angle. The University of Michigan has a long and vibrant history of student activism, and it has been a crucial driving force of progress both on campus and across the country. Michigan students are unapologetic and effective advocates who fight for what they believe in, even after they leave campus. You can always tell a Michigan student apart from the crowd because of their drive to leave the world better than they found it.

NCLC: What has surprised you the most about serving in this leadership role thus far?

AS: I’m surprised by the breadth of work this organization does, and my respect for the people who comprise it continues to grow. When the days get long and the work seems endless, I have found it prudent to remember that I am never having the longest day in my organization. There are so many incredible students and staff working on issues ranging from textbook affordability to mental health resources to advocating for a sanctuary campus. I thought I knew most of the work that happened in the organization, but have been humbled time and time again by the sheer number of passion projects happening through Central Student Government.

NCLC: What challenges did you face running for the position of student body president?

AS: I struggled more than I let on to most people, which is something I’ve tried to reflect on a bit over the last couple of months. As someone who has struggled with mental health in college, like so many students, having to run at the top of the ticket while managing a full course load and a part time job definitely exacerbated the stress. On top of that, mine and Nadine’s candidacy definitely displeased some pretty vocal people, and I learned a little something about demonstrating grace in the face of bigotry and discrimination.

NCLC: Both you and your vice president are two women of color. Given the trends in gender parity, what drove you to run a dual-female ticket? What advice do you have for other young women aspiring to serve in public office?

AS: As my parents can definitely attest, nothing motivates me quite like being told that something cannot be done. Nadine and I were told by so many people that on a campus like ours, running two women - let alone two women of color - was a losing start. Luckily, Nadine and I have gotten used to being told ‘no’ at this point in our lives and we decided that it was time to show people who didn’t think it was possible that they were wrong. We ran together because we each wanted a partner in this work who understands the challenges we have faced. We wanted to show people - the supporters, the nay-sayers, and everyone in between - that no matter what you look like or where you come from, you can represent the University of Michigan student body. 

I have three pieces of advice for young women aspiring to serve in public office, given to me from other women in public office who know way more than I do.

First, build a team of hard-working, smart, passionate, and dedicated people around you. No one does this alone, and to get elected, you’ll need good people around you who will stand by you through the good and difficult times. I was incredibly fortunate to not only have a wonderful running mate, but to also have the greatest team of people running as representatives and working to run our campaign. Show your appreciation for these people, too - they’re often doing this work for free because they care about you and what you stand for.

My second piece of advice is to rely on women who have been there before. There are so many incredible women who have experience in leadership and large-scale projects - ask for their advice, lean on them, and make sure that when you’re in a position to do so for another young woman that you pay forward the support you received from women before you.

My third piece of advice is to be fearless. Don’t let someone tell you that you can’t do something, don’t let doubt cloud your confidence. You’ll feel some degree of self-doubt every day - that’s normal, and frankly, the doubt only grows once you’re actually elected. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll take risks that will sometimes pay off and sometimes implode. But, know that people have put their faith in you for a reason. You are qualified. You are going to do an excellent job. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

NCLC: How would you describe your leadership style? Do you have a political figure or person you look up to?

AS: I would describe my leadership style as facilitative with an eye on the long-term outcome. I greatly admire Ella Baker, a well-known facilitative leader of the Civil Rights movement. Ella Baker was an expert in inspiring and mentoring young leaders, with a keen eye for unrecognized talent and passion. I try to embody her leadership style because it’s important to remember that your own time in office or leadership is short in the grand scheme of things. The success and longevity of your hard work will depend on good and talented people continuing it, so it’s important to invest energy and mentorship in those people early on.

NCLC: When it comes to solving problems, whether it is an internal student government issue or a public facing issue, what’s your strategy?

AS: Every problem is different. I’m a generally straight-forward person, so my typical approach to interpersonal problem-solving is direct confrontation with the assumption of good intent on all sides and aiming for a constructive outcome. However, when the situation does not necessarily fit that approach, I can step back and come at something from the side. You can’t solve every problem in the same way, and understanding that from the start makes dealing with those problems a little bit easier.

NCLC: What piece of advice would you give to aspiring student body presidents?

AS: Be sure that you want to be student body president for the right reasons. This is not a glamorous position, there’s little to no money involved, the hours are long and difficult, and at any given time, someone is harshly criticizing you. And when the difficult moments are particularly long, you’ll have to have the spirit of your service to remind yourself of why you ran for this position. Be sure that you feel a call to serve, be sure that you care deeply about bettering your campus. If you know those two things, then you know you’re doing this for the right reasons.

NCLC: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing your student body and higher education generally?

AS: The biggest challenge facing the University of Michigan student body, in my opinion, is its disparity in experience for students from low-income backgrounds and/or those of minority identities. 99.9% of people - students, administrators, faculty, staff, you name it - are working toward building the best University possible with the best intent in mind and heart. And yet, there is a noticeable and clear disparity in experience for low-income and minority students. College can be financially and emotionally challenging, and is often disproportionately so for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Working to change the campus climate from the inside of an institution can be tedious, and the biggest challenge our student body is facing is how to struggle toward a better campus without recreating the problems that already exist in the process. The good news is that thousands of good people are working day in and day out to make that progress, and I’m not alone in my optimism about the direction in which the University is moving.

Nationally, higher education faces the continued effects of weak investment in early education. Disparities in quality of education don’t start in college, they start in preschool and kindergarten. And in order for higher education to effectively take on those disparities, which intensify as the educational track lengthens, state budgets need to allocate more money for underfunded public education, especially in elementary and middle schools.

 

Photo credit: The Michigan Daily

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