Incoming SA president and VP discuss plans, campus issues
On May 12, Cait McGovern ’21 and Jonathan Briffault ’21 were elected as Student Assembly president and vice president. McGovern and Briffault ran on a platform that advocated for increased mental health services and awareness on campus, financial accessibility and student engagement.
After becoming friends during the history foreign study program in London, the pair began talking about what they hoped to improve at Dartmouth and eventually decided to run for SA leadership together. McGovern has been involved with SA since her freshman year, while Briffault is a newcomer to the organization.
The Dartmouth sat down with McGovern and Briffault to discuss what issues they plan on addressing while in office, how they will protect the rights of sexual assault survivors given new Title IX regulations and how they will advocate for students’ voting rights.
What do you think is the most pressing issue facing Dartmouth today? What are your plans for addressing it in the upcoming year?
CM: Something that we were really hoping to address is mental health on campus, with making a mental health committee and really working to continue collaborating with different offices and student groups across campus, such as the Mental Health [Student] Union. Obviously, moving into this upcoming school year, we're going to be very flexible in terms of making sure that we're being responsive to everything going on with COVID-19.
JB: One of the benefits of putting mental health forward as one of our most pressing issues is that it also plays into a lot of the other things that we want to work on. So as we think about COVID-19 response, we really want to be thinking about and encouraging the administrators to think about the impact it will have on student mental health and the ways that they can help students stay healthy in this time. One of the things that Cait and I want to make sure we're emphasizing is that we keep student wellness and mental health in particular at the center of our minds so that what we're doing helps students along multiple fronts.
What do you think are the main issues related to mental health at Dartmouth currently, and what steps will your administration — or the new committee, specifically — take to solve these issues?
CM: There are many administrators and students and student organizations such as the Mental Health [Student] Union who have been dedicated to holding conversations about mental health on campus and working to advocate for student mental health. Our goal is to help continue these conversations and bring in more voices. We want to make a mental health committee where there will be people from Dick's House, the Student Wellness Center, the Mental Health [Student] Union and hopefully College President Phil Hanlon, bringing all these voices into one room and sitting down and seeing how our resources can best support each other and what we can do as a college to support our students even better.
One of our ideas for this is there's a software called Kognito that can help prepare students to support their peers and understand more about mental health and resources on campus. And that's something that we'd like to see the College look into and potentially implement for students. Something else we're interested in doing is mental health training with Greek houses, and that's something I've already talked to the ISC about. So our goal is to help students be as equipped as possible to support themselves and others and continue conversations around mental health that'll continue happening even after we've graduated.
JB: One element of this is that we want to bring mental health services and mental health knowledge to all students on Dartmouth campus. Many students who suffer from mental health issues don't even really know or certainly don't know what resources are available to them even when there are amazing resources out there. [The programs we hope to start] will expose a lot of students to these resources and to expose a lot of students to thinking about this, [and] hopefully will encourage students to be able to reach out for help when they need it.
How, specifically, will SA work with the administration in the upcoming months to make sure that all of the administration’s decisions are made with students’ opinions in mind?
CM: Currently, SA president Luke Cuomo ’20 and SA vice president Ariela Kovary ’20 have been in really close contact with the administration, making sure that student voices are being heard, concerns are being brought to the table and student questions are being answered. We plan to continue having those conversations with the administration and listening to students and collecting questions and bringing those forward and making sure that we're clearly communicating student needs to the administration during this time.
Over the summer, throughout the fall and in terms following, we're going to make sure that we're looking very closely at College announcements, and we're going to be listening very closely at these meetings and making sure that we're understanding everything to the best of our ability so we can respond in the best way possible for students.
JB: We've already scheduled our first meeting with Dean of the College Kathryn Lively to start taking over some of the work from Luke and Ariela and also to just start introducing ourselves and making sure that she understands what our positions are. Cait and I already have started having conversations about the ways that we're going to make ourselves available this summer term when we're not taking classes and in future terms where not all students are able to be on campus, whether that's scheduling remote office hours, putting out surveys or hosting community town halls and sending minutes to students as Luke and Ariela have been doing. Once we get back on campus, we're gonna work with them to make this a more in person and more structured decision making process.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education revised Title IX protections for sexual assault surviviors in U.S. schools and institutions. The new regulations narrow the definition of sexual harassment, require that colleges allow direct cross-examination at Title IX hearings and specify that college Title IX offices can only address complaints that occur on college property or at college-sponsored events. How will SA help ensure that survivors’ protections are not reduced nor restricted at Dartmouth?
CM: I think the first step for SA is making sure that we're having conversations with the Title IX office, with the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault and with other groups on campus, such as the Inter-Sorority Council, the Interfraternity Council and the Gender-Inclusive Greek Council, so that we can best understand how these policies are impacting everyone on our campus because it's going to be impacting a lot of different aspects of student life. We're going to try to have these conversations and see the best way that SA can support survivors and support these groups and make sure that we are carrying these concerns to the administration, and that these concerns are heard and that they're actually being listened to and responded to.
On your campaign platform, you mentioned that you will work to provide free textbooks to students. How else will your administration work to assist low-income students during this difficult financial time, especially if some or all students must continue to learn remotely in the fall?
CM: When it comes to free textbooks, that's a program that we are designing to work with the library on. SA would be renting these textbooks every term and making them available to students.
Obviously, if we are not on campus, we're going to have to readjust that. I think the best way that we can help students financially right now is making sure that we are communicating with the administration. Let's say there are half the students on campus in the fall and half of them at home, or whatever combination it may be, that students who are not on campus maybe don't have to pay a student activity fee — looking at that really closely so that students are paying for what they're getting.
JB: In terms of more specific ideas, we want to work with the library to increase the amount of online resources available to students so that students aren't required to purchase textbooks, especially when they're working remotely. The library has policies in place that help scan certain texts, but we want to work with them to make that a more general and easier to use process in combination with working on getting physical textbooks for terms when we are on campus.
Since we are interested in expanding the [Hanover Co-op] food voucher system, we're also interested in looking into how we could use SA to provide food vouchers or other short-term benefits to students who are not on campus.
As Cait mentioned, one of the things we're also really interested in is making sure that students who are not on campus are not paying additional fees that they're not able to get the benefits of. But we are cognizant of the fact that the SA budget and SA’s ability to do stuff is highly dependent on the number of students who are on campus and who are paying some of these fees. The centerpiece of our work is going to be really advocating for students with the administration to encourage them to use their resources to help students out, and not just have SA resources doing it.
How will SA protect students’ right to vote in New Hampshire and make sure that all students have access to absentee ballots should fall term be fully or partially online?
JB: SA has a long history of advocating for student voting rights. We're committed to ensuring that all students who are eligible to vote in New Hampshire are able to vote. This is, again, one of those things that has some thorny legal issues associated with it. But we will work with the College and the Office of Residential Life, [which] is essentially the office that deals with a lot of these problems, to make sure that students who are registered to vote in New Hampshire get the ballots that they need.
We'll also continue the work that SA has done in the past with voting rights organizations in Hanover to make sure that students who are on campus have access to the polls. In past years, SA has helped organize transport. This past year, in particular, they did not because another group offered to do it. But we'll make sure that students who would like to vote and are eligible to vote are able to vote.
CM: We might have to get a little creative with that as well because if we still have social distancing in place this fall, renting vans and putting 10 students in them may not be something we're allowed to do, but working to make sure that voting on campus is still something easy for students to do and being creative when we get there.
How will SA ensure that online classes are accessible for all students — including those with disabilities or environmental challenges — this coming summer and possibly this fall if classes are remote?
CM: I know that classes not being pass/fail this summer is concerning for some students, and we want to make sure students can advocate for their D-Plans. If [students] want to take some time off and wait until they're back on campus to take classes, [we hope to make] that a process that is available to them, making sure that information is really clearly communicated.
Every student wants to be academically successful, and we want to support them in that endeavor. I know that this term, the school is offering help with students who needed Wi-Fi access, and we want to make sure resources such as that are going to continue to be available and that they're not just things that were offered for this first online term, but all online terms going forward, ensuring that they're easily available to everyone.
JB: We also want to work with student accessibility advocates. There [are] some amazing student accessibility advocacy groups on campus, and we want to work with them to make sure that the resources that they think are necessary are being advocated for. We know that we don't know all the types of challenges that people are facing, and we also know that we don't know the answers to many of them. When they have suggestions about ways that we can make online learning more accessible to more students, we [will be] bringing that to the College and emphasizing how important it is that they take these suggestions seriously.
CM: Additionally, there's Student Accessibility Services, so [we will be] making sure that information from them is clearly communicated to students in terms of this is how your accommodations may be adjusted for being online or if you have certain accommodations.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
McGovern is a former member of The Dartmouth Staff
Correction appended (May 18, 2020): A previous version of this article noted that McGovern and Briffault met on the government foreign study program. The article has been updated to reflect that they met on the history foreign study program.