The Daily Campus Editorial Board sat down with both USG Presidential Candidates to talk about issues facing the school — and what they plan to do about it. The following transcript of our interview with Michael Hernandez has been lightly edited for clarity and length. Michael Hernández is also a contributor for The Daily Campus Opinion Section. Elections are taking place from Sept. 29th to October 1. Vote at vote.uconn.edu.
The Daily Campus: This summer, a genuine rebellion against police violence and institutional racism has occurred across the country. At UConn, among other things, there has been a movement to defund UCPD, a reckoning with USG’s systemic failures to create a welcoming and diverse environment, and recently, outrage at the spirit rock vandalism and what some perceived as President Katsouleas’ weak response. First, what concrete actions would you take, as President of USG, to tackle these issues at UConn — and second, how do you think President Katsouleas has handled the two racist incidents on campus since he arrived?
Michael: “That’s a really great question because, you know, the protests aren’t a trend. I hope people aren’t just attending protests and thinking that the work is over, it’s just the start. For USG I want to tackle these issues on campus and if, god forbid, we have more racist incidents, there will be no weak or delayed responses from USG. We’ll respond immediately to what we perceive as an attack on our community. I don’t think that incident is the right word for some of these things. People are being bullied, discriminated against and anything that is hateful we’ll be responding strongly and immediately. I think President Katsouleas can go further in his statements and be more aggressive about these situations. The people who instigate hate like that are not being nice or passive, they’re actively attacking our communities. You can’t defend the campus community with weak statements, you aren’t defending anyone like that. We’re going to make sure we hold the president accountable by communicating with him, obviously, and responding to these issues with the urgency they deserve.”
The Daily Campus: The international student community is a vital and significant yet often under-represented and isolated community on campus. What are some of the challenges or issues you think are faced by this community, and how will your leadership address those challenges and issues?
Michael: “I’m so glad you asked that question because international students, I have a few international friends, one friend who is stuck in Taiwan who had to leave because of COVID. Lots of the issues that international students are facing right now, some must wake up at 2am to attend class. With the different time complexes, there isn’t enough flexibility for some of them, which is very sad because they’re a very large community on campus. Probably everyone in this meeting now knows an international student. I’m not entirely convinced that USG has included them fully in the past so that’s going to change if I’m elected president because I consider myself an international student in many ways. English is not my native language, there are still a few words I have trouble verbalizing and I get stuck sometimes. Beyond the language issue, we’re going to actively talk with international students and try to address their concerns and once the recruitment process starts, when we start building our team in USG, were going to make sure we’re including international students because I agree with the statement that they are underrepresented in USG.”
The Daily Campus: USG is tasked with supporting the undergraduate student body through funding, legislation, and outreach. With the COVID-19 pandemic, students and student groups are struggling with isolation and remoteness. How do you intend to address these issues?
Michael: “That’s a really great question. I was actually infected with COVID. I’ve been tested more times than I can count. Fortunately I’m okay. I was an asymptomatic carrier, but with that said I understand the isolation and there is lots of tension on campus, people want to go out and have an experience, the really nice part about our campus is that it’s so large that we can do that, but I think the leadership has not done enough to demonstrate how to do that. If I’m elected president I’m going to show people how to safely go out, have fun outside and plan things outdoors while we can. We’re going to make sure that we’re intentional about addressing people’s isolation by perhaps hosting something as USG, giving tips to people or hosting more things virtually. But I definitely agree that there isn’t any consensus or sense of community at UConn right now. That is why people are going to parties they shouldn’t be going to, because we aren’t providing an alternative. So that’s what I’m going to do as USG president.”
The Daily Campus Given the problems that have come to light regarding the diversity in USG and the overall negative environment for POC, what do you specifically plan to do in order to make that specific environment more welcoming?
USG is about representing the student body, and in order for us to represent the student body we need to 1) look like the student body, 2) speak to the student body, and 3) we need to facilitate for the student body.
Michael: “I’m really glad you asked that question and I’m going to make it broader too. Unfortunately there are many people of many different communities, particularly communities of color, where there is not a welcoming environment. That’s a shame because USG unfortunately seems to be this place where political science majors go to play government. I say, as a political science major, that this is not what USG is about. USG is about representing the student body, and in order for us to represent the student body we need to 1) look like the student body, 2) speak to the student body, and 3) we need to facilitate for the student body. USG is not a place to go play government. Under my presidency USG will be a place that facilitates what students can do on campus so nobody will feel unwelcome there.”
The Daily Campus: Mental health resources remain dramatically underfunded on campus and students continue to be hurt by this situation. How will you direct USG’s resources towards helping students gain the mental health resources they need to survive and thrive?
Michael: “Yes so in the pandemic, one of the silver linings of the COVID world is that people are paying lots of attention to their mental health. There’s a lot of new buzzwords, your wellness and wellbeing, we’re going to take advantage of that and ride that train. My vice president Guilmore, is going to actually lead a campaign to promote mental wellbeing. We’re going to be speaking with mental health professionals to make sure we’re guided in our work. We’re going to mobilize resources to make sure we’re doing something concrete and real for mental health. I think there are lots of conversations about mental health, but I’m not seeing anything really big happening so far, so we’re going to make sure we start that.”
The Daily Campus: This is your first semester on Storrs campus. First of all, welcome! Being relatively new to this space, how do you think you’d be able to adjust to UConn Storrs and run USG at the same time?
Michael: “I’m really glad you asked that question because it touches upon other reasons why I’m running but i’ll address your question specifically first. I’m not new to Storrs, I’ve been to the Storrs campus plenty of times. I’ve been in Model UN and plenty of other student orgs so I know many leaders on campus who I would love to include in USG. I know the campus and the buildings, I know the physical place and I have a sense of community as well. So I feel like I belong in Storrs. I’m meeting a lot of new people even though there are all these restrictions in place. But I’m sure that there may be some people concerned that I haven’t been in USG before. And while I may be new to USG, I’m not new to the issues USG is facing. I bring a fresh perspective. Unfortunately historically and even recently there has been a lot of division within usg and I feel like a lot of that is caused by people who have been there for a while. I think we need to start fresh and I feel that that starts from the top. That starts with leadership so I’m bringing a fresh perspective. I might be inexperienced with the structure of USG but I’ve been studying the bylaws and the constitution of the organization. I’m speaking to people who have been in USG a long time and my vice president has been in the org before, which is one of the reasons he’s part of my team. He’s going to be providing some institutional knowledge to me. But I’ve been speaking to folks for the past two weeks, learning a lot about USG. It’s very similar to other organizations where I’ve had leadership roles such as the CT Young Democrats. There’s one more thing I’d like to add: there’s all these fancy titles in USG and people come to USG with all these fancy resumes. That’s great. It’s really amazing that we’re getting very confident and capable people in USG. But that should not be defining anybody. I see myself in USG as just another husky. I don’t think that these fancy titles mean anything beyond what you are doing for the students, not for yourself.”
I see myself in USG as just another husky.
The Daily Campus: Many of the recent events of this past year and a lot of the issues that we’ve talked about in the previous questions have made it seem that we are presently at a very unique and crucial moment in higher education. Where do you think UConn fits into that, and more specifically, where do you see yourself in that moment?
Michael: “I know for most people it’s really scary or really disappointing to be living in 2020. But as you pointed out it’s a very unique time with very unique opportunities. UConn should be making the most out of it. I think they’re trying as an organization, but they are also limited by funding and other physical bandwidths. But as an individual I feel more active than ever, fighting about the things I care about even more than I would in a non-COVID world, and in a non-racist world. I want to bring that energy, that enthusiasm and that willingness to fight to USG. If UConn doesn’t have the funding or bandwidth to deal with these issues, fine. No problem. Because we have 18,000 undergraduate students and we need to do the work. I’m happy to lead that and we have some money as well. We have to do something, we have to get our hands dirty. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. I’m the kind of person that will literally do their homework at two in the morning because for the other 20 hours I;m dealing with something else because I think it’s that urgent. If we need to stay up a few days, we will, but we’re going to make sure that we’re creating a safe space on campus and fighting for the issues we care about like racial justice and mental health.”
The Daily Campus: Students often report that there is a lack of communication between students and the administration. How do you plan to improve this, and ensure that the administration hears students’ concerns?
Michael: “Yes. As was pointed out in an earlier question about some of the weak statements coming out of the administration, I think it’s because we aren’t demanding enough. Part of my plan for USG is to strengthen the communication between USG and the administration and ultimately to do that for students. Again, USG will be a tool for students, not removed from them. Right now USG seems like its own thing, not really a part of campus. They’re dealing with their own inside drama. But what are they doing for the students? So we’re going to facilitate those conversations between the administration and the students, and I’ll have my vice president work on that project and lead that initiative. More information is forthcoming.”
The Daily Campus: There is a severe issue with the democracy of our student government in Storrs. Consistently, elections leave vacant seats and mere handfuls of a given student population vote. How, especially during COVID-19, can USG become and remain a democratic institution with high student participation?
Michael: “So I have two answers. The first one is something concrete we can do. Because we’re in a virtual world, we should take advantage of that. It’s beyond any other issues associated with social media. It’s a very democratic place; anyone can get an instagram or facebook account. Right now USG is not active online, they’re barely posting. We’re going to have strong communication through social media. We’re going to be posting more frequently. We’re going to be following more student organizations on social media to make sure we’re tapping into those populations. And were going to be engaging with people. My plan as president is to have more town halls online, virtually so that anyone can attend on different days, so that if someone can’t make it Thursday then we hope they can make it saturday night. That’s how you start building democracy at USG. But also, one of the problems with USG is that, as you said, it’s an institution which is only about leaders, it’s not about the community. Leadership is very important, but do you know what’s equally important? Participation. If we have only leadership but no participation, that’s how you end up with some of the issues USG is facing. We’re going to be building democracy through social media. I have lots of experience within communications, so I hope I can contribute that way. I’ll personally oversee this issue because it’s one of the reasons I’m running: we need a USG which isn’t only about leadership but about participation.”
The Daily Campus: Give us your candidate elevator pitch. In a few sentences, tell us why people should vote for you, and what your goals as USG president are.
Michael: “All right. Should I use the politician format? [laughs]. I’m running for USG president because I think we need to build a stronger community, and we need to create a space on campus where everyone feels safe, where they feel represented. We need to make sure that this is a nonpartisan space where everyone feels like they can express themselves, just how they’re doing. I want to make sure that USg is a democratic institution that puts the people first, and that it’s not a space for people to build their resume or play politics and government, but a place that gets things done and an institution that actually represents the needs of students. Vote Hernandez, Valle for USG president and Vice president!”