Rebuilding: How student government is tackling the concept of representation

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Tension filled the room — and it wasn’t just because the Wildcat Chamber in the K-State Student Union was pushing maximum capacity.

In fact, the general unease in the room hung in the air on Nov. 8, 2018 because students poured in to voice their frustration in front of the leaders they elected to represent them.

In fall 2018, it seemed Kansas State was gearing up to deal with yet another racially-charged incident. Earlier in the week, a K-State student reported that a poster saying “Beware N*****s Live Here!!! Knock at your own risk,” was tacked to his on-campus apartment doorway.

The incident in question was later confirmed to be a hoax when the student who reported the sign also admitted to posting it, but it reignited questions of race relations at K-State — specifically, what role does student government play in ensuring equality, diversity and inclusion on campus?

Out of those conversations in SGA, there emerged a new approach to tracking the quality of student representation, and with it, a new standing committee: the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.

The new committee, which took the place of the former Special Committee on Membership and the former Standing Committee on Student Engagement, was established for a number of reasons, said Mathew Orzechowski, inaugural committee chair and senior in industrial engineering and political science. But chief among them was to bridge the gap between the student body and its leaders.

As for testing the quality of representation present in SGA, the governing body re-legislated a task that had fallen to the wayside: the SGA demographic survey. The survey, which hadn’t been completed since 2016, asks questions of participants to gauge how they are classified demographically — ethnicity, disability status, religion and more.

In this governing term, Orzechowski said, the survey was filled out using the Google Form platform. He estimated an 80 percent response rate, and the majority of respondents were student senators. Key exclusions from the data might include many members from the executive branch and judicial branches of SGA.

“Basically it’s just reaffirming the general [assumptions,]” Orzechowski said in regards to the findings of the survey.

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The different colors in this infographic depict the volume of responses for each option. The color lightens based on the alphabetical placement of the option. Some variables in the original data were combined to better reflect the variables available in comparative data. (Infographic by Kaylie McLaughlin)

The majority of the respondents — a little more than 77 percent — self-identified as white.

According to data provided by the Kansas Board of Regents about K-State’s fall 2019 enrollment, that supersedes the percentage of students in the general student population who self-identified as white by more than two percent.

“Demographically speaking, certain groups of individuals dominate what the K-State student body really looks like,” said Vedant Kulkarni, SGA’s international affairs director and junior in data analytics and mass communication.

Specific racial groups that are underrepresented in SGA compared to their makeup of the student body are Hispanic/Latinx students (who make up a growing number of the population at K-State), multiracial K-Staters and students who self-identify outside of the parameters provided by the SGA demographic survey.

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The different colors in this infographic depict the volume of responses for each option. The color lightens based on the alphabetical placement of the option. Some variables in the original data were combined to better reflect the variables available in comparative data. (Infographic by Kaylie McLaughlin)

Non-white groups in SGA that outweigh the statistical value represented in the student body include students who self-identified as Black and Asian.

Kulkarni said having appropriate demographic representation in SGA is important for several reasons.

“When you see a particular student group that dominates, they don’t see the problems faced by marginalized communities or the minority communities,” said Kulkarni, who is an international student from India. “The problems we face are generally not brought up in SGA, and students who are in SGA from these communities don’t know exactly how to voice their opinions and their problems.

“SGA could be a lot more diverse; it could be more inclusive toward other students,” Kulkarni continued. “Student leaders need to take that initiative toward students they know are not represented in SGA and try to bring them in and bring their opinions and bring their challenges to SGA so that the student government can find a solution for them.”

However, representation in SGA, Orzechowski said, needs to be more than just checking boxes.

“I think the issue we run into [is people] can dismiss and say like, ‘There are 10 percent of students on campus who are international students. As long as we have 10 percent in SGA, we’re good.’ I don’t think that’s how it works, and I don’t think it’s how it should work,” he said.

Orzechowski said the goal should be to allow students that are historically underrepresented — or not represented at all — enough of a space so that their voice has weight as well.

“We can look at it high level, but is it meaningful with representation and input and all these other things?” Orzechowski said.

But it goes farther than racial demographics, Kulkarni said.

“Similarly, there have been issues with students of color and students with disabilities and students from the LGBTQ community getting into SGA and how there are certain aspects that prevent them from the leadership positions,” Kulkarni said.

Doing the work

In addition to facilitating and analyzing the demographic survey in SGA, the DEI Committee has a few added responsibilities, said Hannah Heatherman, speaker of the student senate and senior in finance and management.

The committee might look at student senate attendance policies or propose changes to governing documents to correct current practices to affect the “organizational culture” of SGA.

“The second role is to conduct outreach to all parts of campus and especially to groups of students who are historically underrepresented in SGA,” Heatherman said via email.

A big part of that so far, Orzechowski said, is identifying the biggest barriers to joining SGA: time and perception. The two factors go hand in hand with one another.

“For a lot of students, the perception is that it’s not a meaningful use of their time. When they have limited time, they don’t get involved,” Orzechowski said. “The reason I put them together is because I think they are two sides of the same thing because if they saw it as worth the time, they’d make the time and do it regardless, or they’d be more willing to do it.”

Kulkarni said when he was the chair of the now-defunct Student Engagement Committee in the previous term, he noticed some of the same things.

“I saw that people did not know about SGA at all or they were confused over what student government is,” Kulkarni said. “Some of them thought it was way too political and they didn’t want to get involved with that. And there were students that quite frankly told me that they don’t trust SGA or they have problems, they don’t believe SGA does work that is impactful.”

Right now, DEI is focusing a lot of its time during and outside of meetings reaching out to student organizations that fall under the umbrella of the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Student Affairs.

“We have a lack of representation in this pod, basically, but really it’s about rebuilding those relationships. It’s saying, ‘We value having these relationships and we don’t have them right now, so we need to rebuild them,’” Orzechowski said.

Moving forward

Since the objectives of the DEI differ from the legislated roles of other standing committees in SGA, there aren’t clear metrics to measure its success.

“It’s all vibes,” Orzechowski said. “There aren’t really numbers to measure success by.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have ideas about the final goals of the committee.

For one thing, Orzechowski said, ideally students would never flood the Wildcat Chamber again when there is a campus crisis.

“The [final] goal is like making DEI the kind of buffer between everyone on campus and SGA. So the idea would be that in the future … if an issue arises on campus and someone says ‘Oh, who do I go to to solve that,’ one of their first thoughts should be here,” Orzechowski said. “For better or worse, I don’t think senate is or should be that place necessarily, so this is kind of a buffer because it’s scary to go into that space and also it’s not really designed to be a low-key conversation. This, DEI, could be and that’s what the goal is to make it that.”

As for Kulkarni, he said he has a pretty solid idea of what success will look like for the DEI and other initiatives to diversify the governing body of SGA.

“My vision for SGA is in the next 20 years, there should be an international student becoming the student body president,” Kulkarni said.

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Kaylie Mclaughlin
My name is Kaylie McLaughlin and I'm the Editor in Chief of the Collegian. I grew up just outside of Kansas City in Shawnee, Kansas. I’m a junior in digital journalism with a minor in French and a secondary focus in international and area studies. As a third generation K-Stater, I bleed purple and my goal is to serve the Wildcat community with accurate coverage. I am fueled by a lot of coffee and I spend my (sparse) free time watching stand-up comedy.