Student Assembly leadership discusses campus issues

by Rachel Pakianathan | 9/10/18 9:00am

When Monik Walters ’19 and Nicole Knape ’19 were elected Student Assembly president and vice president in April, they told The Dartmouth that they were “changing the game.” This summer, they have started working on a new SA website, a speaker series and the possibility of a student role on the Board of Trustees. During their time in leadership, they said they plan on tackling mental health initiatives, sexual assault prevention and awareness and diversity and inclusion on campus. As the first black female SA president and the first all-female president and vice president pair since 2008, Walters and Knape talked to The Dartmouth about their goals as SA’s new leadership in Dartmouth’s milestone 250th year.

As the first black female SA president, and the first all-female president and VP pair in the last 10 years at Dartmouth, how are you approaching your time in leadership differently?

MW: Being part of this moment has been really important for more than just myself. And it’s something we want to normalize so it doesn’t have to be this momentous thing for years to come. We ran on a platform that emphasizes the relationships and conversations we’ve had with people on campus in different communities. Being a black woman on this campus has provided some difficulties for me, and Nicole and I agree there are times when you’re going to have to fight harder for different things. Our leadership is trying to demonstrate that in this position, we want to make sure that everyone feels as comfortable as they can on this campus, and that all pockets of the student body feel like they’re catered to and represented.

NK: There’s a very broad Dartmouth and a very widespread number of experiences, between being a minority, being a woman, or being affiliated or unaffiliated. We want everyone to know we’re an approachable source they can talk to about concerns about school.

You said during your campaign that you saw inclusivity as the greatest issue presently facing Dartmouth. What are the issues on campus that disproportionately affect marginalized communities, like POC and LGBTQIA+ groups, that SA can work to address?

MW: I want to see more efforts toward creating resources for groups like women of color or LGBTQIA+ communities to be more comfortable in their identities on campus. For example, there was a lot of concern about the school moving the PAC and Rainbow rooms from Robinson Hall. People saw it as another example of Dartmouth pushing spaces for communities of color away, or trying to lump so many different marginalized communities together. We’re trying to put some of those concerns on the administration’s radar. The conversations we’re having are motivated by seeing how students react to things that go on campus, and how they act differently when different communities are affected. For example, when the burglary incident happened with KDE last spring, that was traumatizing and a low point in campus culture. A lot of different communities of women held up efforts to say that we can’t normalize incidents like that. But, for example, women of color have had stories of trauma similar to that and there wasn’t as much of an uproar. We need to focus our attention on how to make it urgent for everyone to feel like all their classmates deserve just as much of their attention when it comes to recognizing what’s right and what’s wrong.

Approximately 60 percent of Dartmouth students are members of Greek organizations. How do we work to make sure our Greek organizations are safe and inclusive?

NK: From conversations that I’ve had, you see that a lot of minorities and women often don’t find that they have a space that they feel comfortable on campus in general. In Greek life specifically, you walk in and it’s maybe less diverse than a lot of other pockets on campus. We want to try exploring why certain spaces are more typified or less inclusive compared to others. It’s also an issue with the culture that has developed over years and years, and improving it has a lot to do with having conversations between the different Greek houses.

MW: One thing I would say is, especially as someone who is unaffiliated, I think the disconnect exists where some people feel more comfortable in Greek spaces than others. I’m not saying Greek life is always about partying and socializing, but a lot of the conversations about Greek life on campus appear to be very black and white in that regard, even though there’s a whole array of characteristics that go into being affiliated. In trying to represent as many people on campus as possible, we want to make sure that as many different voices about this topic are being heard. Maybe that means collaborating with the House system people to work with Greek houses, and utilizing more common spaces that don’t necessarily have a Greek attachment to find some common ground.

The College’s 2017 Sexual Misconduct Survey found that 34 percent of male undergraduate respondents reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact since arriving on campus, up from 28 percent in 2015. How is SA working to reduce sexual assault and dating violence and address sexual violence awareness on campus?

NK: We’re definitely brainstorming how we can make sexual violence education more concrete and reach everyone on campus. It’s mostly putting a helping hand toward the College’s Sexual Violence Prevention Project as it goes on for the next four years. What Mo and I can do on that front is advertise events that are happening and try to cater the climate on campus as much as we can to be open to programming that’s set up by experts in the work.

MW: What we’re trying to do is increase the speed of existing initiatives, and amplify them in whatever way we can. Two starting points we see are in augmenting resources for survivors and educational initiatives that students have to go through in order to graduate. We can collaborate with the Wellness center, collaborate with the Title IV coordinator, collaborate with SPCSA, and the students that are already doing so much good work to make sure that Dartmouth is as safe as possible.

Dartmouth enrolls more students from the top 1 percent of household incomes than the bottom 60 percent. Where do we see this gap reflected on campus, and how can SA make Dartmouth more accessible for lower-income students?

NK: There’s definitely a very felt class divide on campus, where there’s always discussions about brands that people wear on campus, that visible token of wealth that maybe some students can’t afford. It’s there in conversations that I’ve had with floormates, and with my residents as an Undergraduate Advisor. When we talk about their individual backgrounds, we talk about how they grew up and how they’ll literally buy things that can’t afford, just to feel like they don’t have to hide behind the wealthy majority of Dartmouth.

MW: One thing SA can focus on is network opportunities. In spaces where people have to network, the difference in wealth between students is clearer. A lot of people have pre-established networks that they’ve had before Dartmouth, and family connections at companies that everyone’s trying to work at. And I think that SA can also focus on also making sure there are networking opportunities for people who don’t necessarily want to go into corporate America. We can compile resources and guides, as sort of a networking 101. We can expand on using the resources that Dartmouth already has in place, so that regardless of your socioeconomic background, you can use them to launch yourself into a place where you want to be.

Our campus has seen an increase in student demand for mental health resources. “The Call to Lead” capital campaign allocates $17 million to supporting student mental health resources. How is SA working to improve the quality and expansiveness of our mental health resources?

MW: One thing we’re trying to work on for next year is Stress Busters, which is modeled off of Columbia’s program that provides free neck and back rubs to students. It’s a really cool way to get students involved in supporting other students to relieve anxiety. We’re also talking about setting up office hours for next year in spaces that everyone has access to, like Collis common ground or Occom Commons, where we can discuss mental health resources on campus.

The College introduced six new housing communities in 2015. With the house system still in its early years, how do you plan to address student concerns with how the system was rolled out and work to improve the undergraduate living experience?

MW: There’s a lot of pushback when it comes to school money being spent on free trips and merchandise for the house communities, since so many students only go to events for the free stuff without necessarily engaging in the event. And there’s concerns about why money is going to these free events and gear and not elsewhere. The question is how we find a way to blend those social experiences into academic experiences that are related to campus, so students feel like their money is going somewhere where they would prefer it to go. If there was more transparency surrounding the houses’ yearly budgets, that would help because students would be able to have their voices be heard.

NK: Going off on that, there are a lot of programming opportunities. We can advertise the fact that the house systems have a lot of usable money. We’re thinking of having spaces in the House communities where you can go for meals, like at other universities. Most of the houses have barbecues or free dinners which allow students to take a break from their meal plans. We can also work with the house professors to come up with a system where a House community space can be a safe place to be, and make that a viable system for student security on campus. The house professors are really passionate about continuing to discuss these ideas in the Fall.

What power does SA really have on campus, and why should ‘22s want to get involved?

MW: Year to year, the impact that [SA] has can change dependent on who’s in power. We are urging students to join SA because we know what we’re trying to do on campus next year, and we’re confident in our abilities to talk to the right people, to book rooms, to provide funding, to co-sponsor and promote all these different events. We want to capitalize on SA’s legacy of collaboration with student groups and administration … and bring younger students in, so once they understand what SA can do, they want to keep that momentum going.

NK: One piece of advice that Ian Sullivan ’18, the past president, gave us, was to incorporate whoever is interested in SA, not just those who ran and got voted for. So, if you’re interested in really getting involved with assembly, come along to our meetings and have your voice be heard.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.