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How should I get ready to run for SG president?

Q. I’m a Student Senate member at a major public Midwest university. Our school has about 27,000 students and a powerful Student Government. I have intentions of running for an executive position for the coming year, so I would like your opinion of how I might best position myself for the campaign in the spring. I’d love to hear your take on this.

ASGA answers...

First, let’s not forget this year! I am eager to tell you about how awesome it is to serve as student body president of a prestigious university, but it sounds as if you have a job to do now. Here are some steps to keep in mind:

1. DON’T LOSE SIGHT OF WHERE YOU ARE NOW. The very best thing you can do to “position yourself” is not to look at things quite like that! First, people usually perceive “positioning” as less than sincere and you can quickly discredit much of what you do to serve students by giving people the impression that you are perpetually “on the campaign trail.” You don’t want to do that because if you would like to get elected for the right reason, (a passion to serve others), you want your genuine sincerity to come through. I would not recommend talking about your future plans outside a close circle of friends. Let people make their own judgments about your future goals and focus on doing your job now. I think it’s better to have people marveling at your performance and leadership and discussing what a great president you’d be than it is to have to pontificate about your own virtues. Remember, if you are the only person who thinks you’d be a good president or vice president, your chances are slim. The BEST thing you can do is to be the best Senator you can possibly be.

2. BROADEN YOUR SUPPORT BASE BY BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS. Keeping my first point in mind, you still need to be cognizant of your plans in all that you do. You must think about where you would have to expose yourself to be a viable candidate by the time elections come around. If your campus has a massive voting block in the Greek system, or if commuter students are a huge segment of the population, you have to consider that. Keep in mind that race and culture, age, sexual orientation, gender, physical appearance, and living environments are all factors you must consider. I would hope that you are committed to addressing everything from the difficulties of exchange students to blatant discrimination and marginalization on campus. It would behoove you to educate yourself on these subjects. There are usually a great deal of ethnic and cultural backgrounds present on every college campus. Don’t be an observer. At a school your size, there must be cultural centers and events sponsored by student organizations with the main purpose of sharing their history and opportunities with others. Take advantage of that.

Also, don’t forget the gay and lesbian community, the students who speak English as a foreign language, non-traditional students, residence hall residents, Greek students, student athletes, part time students, disabled students, and any other groups who may have commonalities that create special needs and demands of Student Government. Being an advocate for groups that you might not see a lot of, or that you are not truly familiar with is what you are there for. It is impossible to represent people you have no idea about or have never even interacted with. You can serve these students as a senator while truly learning and embracing the dynamics that differentiate them on campus. Keep in mind that most often it is obvious to students if you are there for a vote or if you are involved because you care.

3. BE IN IT FOR THE RIGHT REASONS. I don’t recommend Student Government as a method of bulking up your resume. Unless you truly care about everyone on your campus and want to do everything you can to make things better, you are better off doing something else.  The opportunities to dramatically help people and learn so much about yourself should be taken seriously. Examine your motives and dedication and if you are truly committed, you must reach out to every conceivable group to be a good representative. The figurehead organization for the student body epitomizes all that is important in higher education. You will be most productive if your focus is on doing what you can to make people’s lives easier as they pursue their education.  Do what you can NOW to meet and understand people different from yourself. If you wait until two weeks before the election, your credibility as a sincere servant of the student population will not be strong.

4. KNOW THE RULES. One of the biggest advantages you can have in a campaign is to know all the rules for campaigns on your campus better than anyone else running for office. My first Executive campaign at Washington State was mired in controversy and debate about the types of publications we printed to distribute. This is common. There are usually lots of rules, even more interpretations of the rules, and a variety of entities to enforce them. You can save lots of time and avoid controversy by making sure that you have thoroughly reviewed all aspects of the rules.

In fact, the more you review the rules and more familiar you are with the process, the greater the chance is that you emerge as the “frontrunner” in the campaign. Campaigns are about strategy and popularity as well as ideas and exposure, but most of all they boil down to execution. You cannot execute your strategy or expose yourself to your voters without knowing your parameters to do so. Take the time to study the rules and do it early.

5. KNOW YOUR ORGANIZATION'S CONSTITUTION. Do you know how much of an advantage it is to be able to quote and refer to the Constitution of your Student Government when you are campaigning? It is an incredible advantage and it allows you to distinguish yourself as a serious candidate who is familiar with the processes of Student Government. You should be able to do this as a Senator, but also take the time to really read the entire document and familiarize yourself with it at least well enough to be able to refer to it regarding common student issues.

6. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GOOD PEOPLE FOR THE RIGHT REASONS. This is one of the most critical lessons I learned in Student Government. My first move was to pick a “side” and be loyal. From my freshman year until the day I left office as a senior I attempted to present myself in a manner similar to that of the student body president I met that first year. I liked him, I respected him and I saw him be affective. It is always good to have role models and sometimes they can teach you tons without saying much. I learned from simply watching and it worked for me. Pick someone you click with and pick their brain and watch them work; it helps.

Many schools have political parties in Student Government (the University of California, Berkeley has an intricate model of the “party system” you may want to review), and others have unofficial alliances and voting blocks that would be helpful to educate yourself about if that is the tradition at your school. I am not saying that you must join one of these parties or groups. In fact, it may be a good strategy to run opposed to that as an “outsider.” That’s up to you, but either way, you must educate yourself on how the process works and it is good to find allies and confidants to work together with.

You will also want to find people who can help you execute your campaign strategy. These were always my closest friends and supporters and you’ll find that this is a neat time to see who your true friends are too! NEVER underestimate how much you can and should show gratitude for this help. I would never have been elected to my first term without a good running mate, my most respected friend who managed the campaign, my girlfriend, and my fraternity. That was my support base. I leaned on them and they hung a load of posters, gathered signatures, and generally worked very hard. I’m eternally grateful for that and you will need some sort of base to accomplish the goals you will need to achieve to win.

I don’t recommend promising students who help a job in any appointed or hired capacity. I promised a good friend of mine a job on my staff the second term I served as ASWSU President in exchange for his support on the campaign. I did not feel bad promising him a job because he was the first new friend I ever met my freshman year and he had served in many roles on campus. He was qualified and capable, but by the end of the term our friendship was damaged and he publicly embarrassed me by endorsing my opponent in the upcoming election. It was certainly his right to do that, but you can see how friendships, campaign staffs, and your immediate Executive Staff could have a combustible outcome if you are not extraordinarily careful when combining them. Essentially, you need to hire people who are capable, loyal, and deserving. Let that be your guide and don’t make promises about staff spots.

That reminds me that if your Student Government has a broad scope of authority and ability to affect the campus, you will have to spend thousands of hours and exert a tremendous amount of effort if you are elected president. This means that you will be around the same people a lot, (especially your immediate staff). This can create and also destroy deep personal relationships. I could write you several pages about how painful this can be, but I sincerely hope you will remember two important things:

1. You will have to make difficult decisions regarding your time. Be prepared for that and don’t allow your position to affect your personal life in too drastic a manner. If you have to schedule time for your friends, do so. You might feel cheesy penciling people in, but it’s better than the alternative.

2. It is NEVER a good idea to run on a ticket with someone you have ever been in a romantic relationship with. It would irresponsible for your Student Government to suffer because you and your vice president were involved in a personal relationship that hindered your ability to work together productively. I know most people would claim that it would never happen (“we’ll always work fine together”), but I have seen personal relationships get involved with work and it is difficult. It’s not worth it and is much more likely to hurt the relationship and your organization than it is to create a good working environment. Just a thought...

There are so many more things that come to mind when I think about important aspects of a campaign. Just focus on building sincere relationships for now and doing a great job as a Senator. Be careful to think strategically without loosing focus on service and don’t allow the excitement of politics to make you treat people you care about in the right way.

You’ll be fine if you take the time to know the rules and you have the passion to ignite the fire every day to improve your campus.

American Student Government Association  

The American Student Government Association will provide all Student Government leaders and advisors nationwide with networking, research, and information resources and will teach them how to become more effective, ethical, and influential leaders on their campuses. ASGA also will promote the advancement of SGs, conduct research as the nation’s only “SG Think Tank,” and advocate the importance of having a vibrant, autonomous Student Government organization at every institution in America.

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