Five years ago, Columbia College Chicago’s brand-new Student Government Association spent their first official meeting brainstorming ways to fill nine empty senate seats. Just two months later, their inaugural president resigned. That spring, SGA Advisor and Director of Student Leadership Dominic Cottone wrote a letter to CCC’s student newspaper, The Columbia Chronicle, urging students to get involved with SGA in time for elections.
While still facing challenges, the organization has come a long way since then. SGA now sits on several campus-wide committees that had been closed to students in the past. It has a representative on CCC’s board of trustees—a position that even many long-established SGs don’t possess. Members work together with administrators on issues facing students, such as coming up with alternatives to expensive textbooks. This spring, 2006-07 President Brian Matos even became the first SGA president to win re-election.
How has CCC’s SGA managed to make so much progress in such a short time? By making strides in the following areas, they’ve emerged as a credible and effective voice for students.
SGs need to prove they’re following a student-driven agenda in order to be taken seriously. Since their first year, CCC’s SGA members have held open forums to find out what students want. “Forums allow SGA to communicate with the student body on a more personal level, learn more about individual department concerns, and show the student body that the SGA cares, is available, and is working to improve student life,” says Vanessa Torres, assistant to the director of student leadership and 2005-06 SGA president.
In the spring, SGA co-hosts and broadcasts an annual State of the College Address, an event where CCC President Dr. Warrick L. Carter discusses campus issues and progress on the school’s master plan. Afterward, students can express their opinions when Dr. Carter takes questions directly from them. “It’s broadcasted live on television all around campus,” says Megan Juneau, 2003-04 vice president. “Students and staff members will stop and stare at the monitors to watch in the middle of hallways.”
Official polls are another way to gauge student interests. Last year, SGA conducted a student census through OASIS, CCC’s Internet portal. Some of the questions asked included, “Do you feel safe on campus?” and “How often do you utilize the Columbia gyms?” “The results revealed information such as how often computer labs are used, a desire for better financial services from the school, the need for better communication tools, and the students’ overall satisfaction with their academic experience,” Matos says.
With concrete data and feedback on hand, the administration becomes more willing to listen and act on SGA’s requests. Having this kind of credibility helped SGA gain representation on campus task forces and made creating a student trustee position possible.
Replenishing the Ranks
At CCC—an arts school where students have little free time for extracurriculars—SGA has to reach out to students to combat their apathy and get them involved. “If we don’t have the student body supporting us, coming to meetings, knowing what the issues are, and then sharing their own personal experiences and testimonies, it won’t work,” says Akisha Lockhart, 2006-07 vice president of communications. “Prior to this year’s first meeting, SGA members took time on a Saturday to make and post flyers that invited students to celebrate with us: to talk, eat, and learn what SGA was all about.”
SGA also sends representatives to every college-wide event. At new student convocation, for example, SGA members hand out flyers, welcome students, and make themselves available to answer any questions.
Piquing student interest is one thing; getting a student to make a commitment is another. During Torres’ presidential term, SGA created the Voices in Power committee with that idea in mind. Considered their “junior varsity senate,” VIP meets prior to senate meetings to discuss the agenda for that day. Then, the VIP senate representative shares the committee’s feedback during the actual senate meeting.
“Not only does this give power back to the students-at-large and force our senators to hear their constituents, but it creates a built-in pool of senate ‘back-ups’ and future members,” Torres says.
2006-07 Executive Vice President Andrew Breen agrees that the group is a great tool for bringing in new blood. “Last year, we got some awesome people that couldn’t run for senate for whatever reason,” he says. “After their experience on VIP, they decided to run this year and won on the platforms in their department.”
In addition, this year’s SGA increased the average number of senators from 14 to 20 through some reorganization and increased marketing. “We eliminated positions that were never filled and created new ones with more interest, such as two seats for commuter students,” Matos says. “We also created a recruiting committee and geared our marketing toward recruitment and retention of members.”
Finding Common Ground
One of SGA’s top priorities has been to work with faculty and administrators, rather than against them. When both groups share mutual goals—such as improving campus safety, improving student financial services, or increasing minority recruitment and retention—results are achieved more quickly when they work in concert to serve students. “SGA chairs, vice chairs, and executive committee members who sit on college-wide committees provide insight into the average student’s life, thus helping to make decisions which are more in tune with what students need,” Torres says.
Although it’s important to make the student voice heard, SGA also needs to know when to negotiate. “Some of SGA’s biggest challenges have been balancing the needs of the students versus the needs of the administration,” Cottone says. “But, they’ve worked through this by learning to compromise.”
When the vice president of student affairs proposed a $15 increase to the student activity fee this year, SGA recognized that it was necessary to help fund campus organizations but wanted students to know an increase wouldn’t become a regular occurrence. SGA approved the one-time increase on the condition that the administration wouldn’t raise it again for at least three academic years.
“This deal gave the VP of student affairs the money his office needed, ensured that student groups would be adequately funded, and guaranteed that the same group of students wouldn’t be hit up for money twice,” Matos says.
Providing Tangible Benefits
SGA sometimes helps constituents in more direct ways. When SGA members learned that students wanted additional access to campus computers, they worked to extend those hours, creating some 24-hour computer labs on campus. SGA has raised money to contribute to the Open Doors Scholarship, a scholarship for incoming freshmen from low-income backgrounds. From its budget, SGA also funds numerous campus events and organizations and donates money to charities like the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the Katrina Relief Fund, and the Hokie Spirit Relief Fund.
Providing concrete, tangible benefits for students and the community doesn’t just boost SGA’s reputation—it shows that the organization achieves results and serves a valuable purpose.
Pursuing a Vision
When it comes to improving conditions for students, SG members can’t always expect results during their terms. SGA is currently working on several multi-year goals that require planning and cooperation with other groups.
One of these goals is securing a college student discount on Chicago’s Metra commuter rail system. To achieve this, SGA needs to the support of other local schools in order to have enough lobbying power. SGA has started contacting regional colleges to build a coalition on the issue.
“Our coalition is only about six strong at this point, but the President’s office at our school is helping us by contacting other college presidents in Illinois,” Matos says. “The discount will require legislative action to pass in the Illinois House and Senate, so we’re considering this a mult-year process.”
Another long-term goal is building a student center. After learning that students were interested in having one, SGA communicated that to the administration and the board of trustees through a focused marketing campaign. However, even thought the board of trustees has now approved the plans for a $90 million building, the funding for it has to come from somewhere. “SGA continues to spread the word about our need to come together and fundraise for the campus center," Cottone says.
Long-term projects can be trying when results aren’t anywhere in sight. Having a supportive advisor in Cottone has helped keep SGA members focused and on track.
“He’s our number-one fan and has been instrumental in the success that we’ve had,” says Na’m Hayes, vice president of finance. “When our spirits are low and we don’t see the vision, he’ll sometimes sell us on our own product.”
Building on the Past
With so much turnover in SGA every year, members can’t waste time reinventing the wheel. “We try to learn from the previous experiences and trials of those who have come before us,” Breen says. But when SGA does make a mistake, they do their best to turn the situation into a learning experience.
“This year, we had members talking to media outlets without being on the same page with the SGA, costing us some negative press in the Chronicle,” Cottone says. “However, it led to SGA developing more policy and procedure regarding external communications and making proposals, which will prevent that from happening in the future.”
In addition, SGA is also in the unique situation of having Torres—a member of SGA’s first senate and a current CCC staff member—as a resource. While she hasn’t advised the current SGA in an official capacity, Torres has helped by answering questions about SGA’s past.
“I sort of served as a living history book,” she says. “In the beginning, officers came to me frequently, but as the year progressed, they didn’t need me as much.”
Contact Torres at firstname.lastname@example.org, Matos at email@example.com, or Cottone at firstname.lastname@example.org.