College hosts student government conference
By any measure, student government at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont is formidable.
Consider just the sheer numbers: For each weekly Tuesday meeting of the St. Mike’s Student Government Association (SGA), up to 80 students pack into the large science lecture-hall Cheray 101, representing an array of interests, clubs and campus residential locations. Along with their busy daily nuts-and-bolts work to serve fellow students and their interests come valuable life lessons in conflict resolution, community engagement and diversity.
Those themes were discussion focal points Saturday, February 23 on the Saint Michael’s campus as a group of Student Government Association (SGA) leaders took initiative to organize and run a statewide Student Government conference attended by 35 student leaders from Champlain College, Norwich University, University of Vermont and Saint Michael’s. They heard an inspiring and educational keynote from Vermont’s Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, followed by breakout groups on those key themes.
Student organizers believe this was the first of its kind in the state, with now widespread hopes among those who attended to make such conferences an annual tradition either at Saint Michael’s or at other campuses.
The conference was the brainchild of Shane Coughlin ’21, a sophomore political science and philosophy major from Hudson, N.H. who also is an aspiring lawyer and SGA student policy officer. Coughlin said he and some other SGA members last year accepted an invitation to attend a student government conference at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. “We were thinking how come we don’t have something like this in Vermont?” he said. “So I took it upon myself and reached out to a lot of different Vermont institutions and heard back from three. A few others expressed interest but couldn’t make the date, so I see real potential for this to grow in the future.”
Another conference organizer, Kayla Schneider’19, a senior political science major from Wells, ME, and the SGA secretary of diversity, equity and inclusion, led a conference break-out group on “Diversity and the SGA,” joined for that session by Seth Bonvouloir ’21, a freshman international relations major with Spanish minor from Litchfield, NH, who serves the SGA as “Suites Vice President” representing Cashman, Canterbury and Pontigny residence halls.
All those students said that Tim Ashe’s keynote address was a highlight for them. Schneider described her most important lesson from that talk: “What I took away was his message that if you want something done, you have to be persistent and keep coming back and showing up to hold people accountable to make this a better place since going just once and saying ‘I care about this’ doesn’t really do much,” she said.
Coughlin’s favorite message from Ashe was the importance of having goals in the many committees of the SGA in order to assess progress more meaningfully – “Otherwise, it seems whenever we meet it’s just updates, but nothing’s really happening,” he said. “Tim Ashe seems to use that strategy of setting goals at the Statehouse quite effectively.”
Coughlin says he was involved in local politics in his New Hampshire home town as a student representative to the school board, and his activism there helped in the passing of funding for a much needed new track at his school.
Schneider says coming to Saint Mike’s sparked her initial interest in politics and activism and now she might like to make it a career, perhaps eventually at a college. “I realized my first year here while taking a Peace and Justice Seminar that I had such a passion for social justice,” says Schneider, who has enjoyed working in her SGA role with the administration, the Multicultural Center and the Center for Women and Gender. She would aspire to similar work at a college down the road for a career, but she says she’s also interested in the ACLU, having volunteered already for the national organization.
Bonvouloir eventually wants to use the International Relations degree he’s working on to be a Foreign Service officer, perhaps in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East. “I love learning about other cultures,” he said, explaining that he’s nearly fluent in Spanish and lives in International Housing in Cashman Hall, exposing him to Chinese and Japanese too. He started volunteering for different candidates during the 2016 presidential election year at all levels of government while he was still in high school and got hooked.
Discussion periods at the conference were a chance for all to hear how students from different schools perform their functions differently, and to learn from one another. “The conversations were very natural, talking about problems and solutions we’ve encountered,” said Coughlin.
He said everybody was surprised by how big the Saint Michael’s SGA with its nearly 80 members , compared with other Vermont colleges that typically might have student government organizations closer to 20 or 30 students in size.
Some ideas that emerged from the workshops included a suggestion to have a “Director of Clubs,” position as some other colleges have, given how many clubs Saint Michael’s has.. Bonvouloir liked the idea of specific implicit bias training that he heard about from other schools. The first-year student said along with SGA, he is involved with Common Ground — an LGBTQ-focused support and ally group — along with the center for Women and Gender, Model UN and the College’s relatively new United Nations Association-USA chapter. To spur better discussions and keep everyone on track with the schedule, for each conference participant Coughlin created informational packets with a detailed schedule, question-prompts, and background material.
One of the breakout group talked about community engagement and Saint Michael’s students made a good impression telling about the Fix it With Five program that funds important local service outreaches in the community through student funds, Coughlin said.
The conversation on community well-being featured members of the Saint Michael’s Active Minds chapter, presenting on their work to promote mental health on campus. Coughlin is a resident assistant in Canterbury Hall, which is substance free housing, and works a lot on programming including a recent midnight ice-skating event at nearby Cairns Arena that drew 90 students.
Schneider’s other campus involvements include being president of the Feminist Club, her activity with the Centers for Women and Gender and Multicultural Affairs, and plans to soon be part of MOVE service trip to the Dominican Republic over the coming spring break, led by Fr. Lino Oropeza, SSE ’11 and Matt Seklecki from the Admission office. She studied abroad in Ireland last year. Bouvouloir would like to study abroad in a couple years, perhaps to Thailand or the Middle East. But Coughlin says “I like being here, doing fun things like this!”
Most of the conference took place on Third Floor of St. Edmunds Hall, with the keynote in the Farrell Room and breakout sessions in the nice seminar rooms nearby. SGA funds for such events paid for a Sodexo noon lunch for all participants.
All three students said were proud that they organized the conference with virtually no other staff or faculty adviser direct participation on Saturday, and they were thrilled with how enthusiastic all the participants seemed about the conference.
Coughlin said going forward he would like to see Vermont colleges rotate in hosting conferences, which now seems like a possibility – or else he plans to take the initiative to organize another one at Saint Michael’s next year.