On a Sunday afternoon in the back corner of the Student Association office, SA President Peak Sen Chua and Executive Vice President Sydney Nelson waited for their next appointment.
On their shared Google Calendar, crowded with blue and yellow boxes, the two had allocated about an hour for a meeting about an upcoming academic advising report – just enough time before they had to travel from the SA conference room to a cabinet meeting. Then, the two would head to a student organization’s cultural event, and Nelson would break off to attend a leadership team meeting, followed by a transition meeting to help her successor move into his role.
The rest of the week was similar – packed with senate meetings, classes and talks with administrators.
“And these were actually ‘light’ weeks in comparison to others,” Nelson said.
Through weeks of packed schedules this academic year, the SA’s top two leaders have either spearheaded or played a role in the launch of 20 new projects, with plans to roll out three more before the end of the academic year. The initiatives ranged from internal SA changes – like the creation of the University’s first-ever arts week, led by members of the executive cabinet – to University-wide measures, like an overhaul of the Colonial Health Center and the establishment of a $2 million sustainable investment fund.
Previous SA administrations have contributed to the institution of major University changes, like the opening of the CHC in 2015 or the addition of the first-year forgiveness policy last year. But Chua and Nelson attributed this year’s number of institutional changes to a revamped SA culture focused on trusting cabinet members to pursue their own projects and a positive working relationship with University President Thomas LeBlanc during his first year in office.
“I think we’re just both really grateful to have had this experience this year, the good, the bad and the ugly – all of it,” Nelson said. “I think that we’re both leaving the office feeling like we’ve done everything we could this year.”
Changing the culture
Just more than a year ago, Chua and Nelson were opponents.
The two had both launched campaigns for SA executive vice president – with Nelson centering her campaign around student affordability and Chua focusing on resources for international students and improvements to the Colonial Health Center.
But when the SA presidential race was rocked by accusations of stalking and harassment, eventually forcing administrators to postpone the election until the fall – the two stressed that they wanted to set an example of opponents who could remain friends. When Chua was elected executive vice president by just 102 votes and the senate later approved a measure to make him the SA’s next president – he nominated his former rival to be his executive vice president.
Thomas Falcigno, who served as SA executive vice president last academic year, said after the scandal last spring, several administrators had concerns about the direction of the student government.
But he said Chua and Nelson were able to devise a new agenda focused on improving SA culture after being thrown into their roles, allowing them to re-evaluate relationships with administrators and students and move forward on projects despite massive administrative turnover.
“Maybe they haven’t come out and been able to accomplish everything they ran on, but they’ve still done a lot of good work for the students,” Falcigno said.
In just the past two months, Chua and Nelson have partnered with Nicole Cennamo, the assistant vice president for academic affairs, on two initiatives – the implementation of a new centralized academic resource center and the publication of a report showing advisers don’t have personal relationships with students.
“When working with them, they don’t have a top-down leadership style,” Cennamo said. “In fact, they have a bottom-up leadership style. They try to inspire each and every person in the cabinet and the senate.”
Evaluating the ‘student experience’
As Chua and Nelson entered their new positions last spring, the University was also preparing to welcome a new president to campus.
From day one, LeBlanc said improving the student experience would be a major priority during his tenure, after he’d heard complaints from students about the University’s transactional nature. Chua and Nelson said they used the first semester to introduce student concerns to LeBlanc – and then were able to bring him researched proposals about the need for an 18th credit or more personalized advising services.
Chua said several administrators had previously shot down SA proposals because they were too big to tackle or would extend past SA leaders’ tenures – but when LeBlanc arrived on campus, he and Nelson wanted to pursue larger, cultural problems at GW that the president may be interested in addressing in his own mission to overhaul the student experience.
“We’re going to try anything and everything, but we’re going to be intentional,” Chua said. “We’re going to be smart about it, and we’re going to make sure anything we do is backed up by data, backed up by proposals that clearly articulate our asks of the University.”
With input from the SA, the University announced major changes to the dining plan in February – followed by a switch in campus shuttle providers to eco-friendly and WiFi-enabled buses and improvements to the campus climate survey.
Logan Malik, the SA’s vice president for undergraduate student policy, said Chua and Nelson placed an increased focus on developing relationships with administrators this year. He said the research behind the project proposal for the sustainable investment fund was pivotal in getting top administrators, like Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz, on board.
“They knew the strategy, and they knew the methodology, and they knew what they had to come into every meeting with – they knew what material they needed,” Malik said.
Building a foundation
Student leaders said the foundation Chua and Nelson set for the SA during LeBlanc’s first year in office will provide future leaders with the tools necessary to continue working on big projects that tangibly impact students’ everyday lives.
Deputy Provost for Academic Affairs Terry Murphy – who Chua and Nelson said has been their biggest administrative partner this year – said the two partnered with officials this year on several initiatives “geared towards improving the experience of GW students.”
“I also have been impressed by the way in which they have brought forward concerns of other students who had other priorities, such as the need for more performance rehearsal space,” Murphy said in an email.
Ashley Le, the SA’s president-elect, said her time as vice president for public affairs in Chua’s cabinet gave her a firsthand look at the “team effort” it takes to launch projects. She said Chua and Nelson incorporated student voices in every initiative they rolled out this year – something she hopes to build upon during her tenure.
“While Peak and Sydney entered office after a stormy season in the Student Association, their leadership has reset not only the advocacy framework, but also the culture of student government for both current and future SA leaders,” Le said in an email.