Balancing identities as Student Body President at American University

In this guest blog post, American University Student Body President Devontae Torriente shares his sincere words on the challenges of serving in this high-profile leadership role.

Being student body president at American University has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had to date. I have been given access to areas of student life and administrative processes that I may not have otherwise been privy to, and I’ve been able to forcefully push for what I truly think is best for the students at this University, on their behalf. That said, it’s also been incredibly challenging. I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a leader and the difficulties of being a hyper-visible student.

When I campaigned to be president, I believed that student government had potential; it is an organization with the capacity to effect lasting change when it has the right leaders at the helm of it. To this day, I still believe that is true. What I’ve come to find, though, is that even though I knew leading an organization and a student body would be hard, it’s much more difficult than I anticipated.

Balancing Identities 

"I was dealing with what it meant to be a black person in our contemporary society, grieving the ubiquitous black deaths, while still having to be on call as a student leader.”

I have struggled with the implications of being a black student body president of a predominantly white organization and university and what that means regarding how I talk, look and engage with others. At the beginning of this semester, our campus community was faced with intense but absolutely necessary conversations regarding racism and moving beyond the superficial conversation of “diversity.” We received a lot of national media attention and it was difficult because I was impacted in my role as president but also in my identity as a black student. There was a lot of pressure from several different angles and I was grappling with these two worlds of mine that are inextricably linked but aren’t always equally salient. I was dealing with what it meant to be a black person in our contemporary society, grieving the ubiquitous black deaths, while still having to be on call as a student leader.

When I launched an informative campaign promoting the increased use of trigger warnings, called #LetUsLearn, I received a lot of nasty messages, emails, and online comments from both complete strangers and my peers. Because of the visibility of my position and the politicized nature of the term “trigger warnings,” others’ opinions were strong and well-publicized. My goal was, and still is, to support what I believe will benefit students as a whole, especially those who are marginalized or have suffered trauma. Sometimes that means having to wade through a sea of negativity in order to leverage the platform I have been given to make a change.

A Vision for Student Government

"Sometimes people forget that no matter our involvement as student leaders, we are still people with feelings and emotions much like everyone else. That doesn’t suddenly disappear when a person becomes president, and it’s important to keep that in mind.”

In addition to grappling with perceptions of me by the campus community and even those outside of it, I also had to juggle how those within student government viewed me. Let’s be real, no government, actual or student, is without drama and politicking. People sometimes let their egos get the best of them and act in ways that yield much less for the student body and much more for their own personal ambitions. That becomes incredibly difficult to deal with when I’m trying to do my job and obstacles are being erected in front of me at every turn. It becomes even more difficult when people say harsh things, seemingly with little regard for the impact of their words.

I want the campus community to really see the value in student government, and for those who already do to continue to, but that’s understandably hard to do when there have been people from within who did not give them much of a reason to. Sometimes people forget that no matter our involvement as student leaders, we are still people with feelings and emotions much like everyone else. That doesn’t suddenly disappear when a person becomes president, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

At the end of the day, whether I am struggling with balancing my identities, parsing through mean-spirited comments, or trying to work around the egos of others, all that I do comes from a place of love. I’ve been tasked with helping to heal wounds that are sometimes deep and painful. They are wounds that may have been inflicted before I assumed my role, and may even persist well after I finish. But even if I can just help heal those wounds even a little bit, it will have been worth it to me. My university and our student body are not perfect, but I love them nonetheless. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have asked them to allow me to serve them in the capacity I do now.

Needless to say, leadership is not without struggle, but it is also not without reward. I look back at all that has happened in the first six months of my term to shape how I approach the last six. There’s a lot of work to be done between now and May, when my presidency ends, and I’m sure it will continue to be challenging. However, I take comfort in knowing that I don’t have to do it alone. I have an amazing team to work with and network of support to lean on, including those in student government, students across campus, and the other leaders I’ve met through the National Campus Leadership Council. When things have been tough, I’ve been fortunate enough to have people in my life send me words of encouragement to lift me up so I can keep moving forward. I truly believe the change we all want won’t happen overnight, but it will happen as long as we keep working towards it together, and I’m grateful to have the chance to lead my community in the right direction.

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