Joshua Massey, '18, Computer Engineering, served as UMBC's 2017-2018 Student Government Association President.
Believe it or not, I have been involved in my schools’ Student Government Associations (SGA) since 2006. That was when I was encouraged to become the class historian in elementary school, a role I had never even heard of, let alone knew how to do. I had no idea that that small push would take me to where I am today -- representing almost 11,000 undergraduate students at one of the largest public research universities in Maryland. Reflecting on my entire journey, while paying special attention to my time in the UMBC SGA, I would answer the question, "What is SGA?" like this:
- Student government is a catalytic idea.
- Student government is the will of the student body, its hopes and dreams.
- Student government is boundless.
Student government is a catalytic idea. College and university student governments are often viewed as simply funding sources for campus events, or as launching pads for political careers. What they tend to have in common is that they adopt the "suggestion box" model of government, where constituents complain to the politicians, and the politicians hear the concerns and attempt to address them (or, at least, appear to do so). Yet I’ve experienced UMBC’s SGA as something different: a catalyst, by which I mean a forum where all students can gather and commune, theorize and strategize, work cooperatively and collectively. This mindset is embodied in the very first sentence of the UMBC SGA Constitution, which says that all undergraduates at UMBC are members of the SGA. That’s a powerful statement about values. The sentence implies a call to action: we must involve students in what we do every day. The idea of an organization that continually fuels the imaginations and actions of its members is deeply inspiring. I love knowing that the work is never "complete" and will always be unfinished, awaiting future generations to further modify, refine, and perfect the work of previous generations. Our work is not tied to a specific place, date, or time; instead, it is the continual small victories of undergraduate students that move our work forward.
Student government as the will of the students in a concentrated, complicated form. Every office, department, and program at a college or university is charged with a specific goal or outcome, usually one that is central to the mission and vision of the institution. But what about an SGA? Is its role to govern? To manage funds? To advocate? My short answer to this is fairly simple: student government makes the community's needs known and helps to meet those needs. UMBC’s SGA has done this in response to emergent community needs (as when it advocated for renovations to the Retriever Activities Center weight room), to establish new services at UMBC modeled on similar services available elsewhere (as with the Bikeshare Initiative), and to ignite and encourage student innovation and creativity (as with the solar-powered charging stations/outdoor tables proposed by the student organization SOLARetrievers). Though this role is more flexible and improvisational than that of most UMBC departments, this is what SGA officers should spend the majority of time doing.
Finally, student government is boundless. It is unlimited in its potential to help students recognize their stake in the campus community, and it helps to transcend artificial barriers between people who can collaborate to help that community thrive. Nearly every program of the university has specific goals, processes, and procedures. The university’s divisions and compartments can constrain everyone’s thinking about new relationships and new possibilities. Student government can transcend the barriers and spark everyone’s imaginations as we work within the UMBC community to advocate and create change. Accomplishing this means recognizing that student government is more than just "a club" or "what you do on the side." The work we do in student government is every bit as real as the world beyond the university, and involves applying skills we learn within and beyond classrooms. We think expansively and contribute to the building of the world around us. We make history.
As my tenure as a leader in UMBC’s student government comes to an end, I am encouraged that this end is also a new beginning -- an opportunity to transition knowledge and experiences; to tell my story and add it to our larger, collective story; and to wake up the day after my term ends (and every day thereafter) eager and excited to change the world.
Contact the author, Joshua Massey, at firstname.lastname@example.org.