(Note: Bolded text is The Editorial Board, unbolded is Nicholas Xenophontos, USG Pres. Candidate)
Before but especially with the pandemic, turnout in USG elections has been low. How do you plan to improve public relations and perception of USG on campus in particular with students who don’t currently interact with or trust student government?
I like that that’s a starting one. I’ll break it up into now while I’m campaigning, and more importantly, if I were president. While I’m campaigning, a big part of it is that I have a weird philosophy in terms of taking serious things not too seriously. USG deals with very serious matters; it’s a big role. But it’s the sort of thing where it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun while you do it. The best way to put it is, for instance, on our posts, I like making it look cute and putting little animals on them. And that stuff is the sort of thing where I don’t want to lose that touch of who I am as I do these things, even if that means people don’t always take me seriously. And I think hopefully, students see that. But again, the whole point is that if you go into it, there’s a mindset of “Oh, people will gravitate towards me.” Because of this, you’re kind of giving up some. I don’t know, I have a weird fantasy about that.
Beyond that, when I’m president, that’s actually a big part of our platform, which is outreach, because me and Abby are not very related to USG at all. We have only recently been learning everything there is to it and exponentially gaining experience. We still have that mindset of what it was like to be on the outside of it, and look into it through that glass.
Having that mindset, I want to talk to Student Activities, which is the one that I believe limits how much USG can interact with the entire student body via email and such, and change that, because I know not everybody looks at their emails. A big part of that is because we get clogged up with all these other emails from places like the bookstore. And at least with some semblance of power, you can try to change that, try to say, I don’t need to know when there’s a dumpster fire in a building far away. But I do want to get an email from USG, notifying me about legislation going against anti-semitic drawings that have been around campus. I’d rather hear about that, not dumpster fires, or I’d rather not hear about shirts that are on sale. I don’t care. I’d rather hear about legislation being passed, like the United act, where they include the new ex officio seats. It’s stuff like that, where people don’t care, don’t trust it, because they’re just not hearing about it.
This is going to be a weird fact. Maybe it’ll put some people off. But Abby and I might have already said this to the debate, I don’t remember. But like, I didn’t know what the “U” in “USG” even stood for, for a little bit at the very, very start, like what it stood for, like, like university or UConn, and I found out it stood for undergraduate because people just don’t know. It’s not so much, it’s just a lack of information. There’s a disconnect that I feel people within the USG bubble don’t really see.
The international student community is vital and significant, yet an often underrepresented and isolated community on campus. What are some of the issues you think are faced by this community and how will your leadership address those issues?
This is a hard one, because it’s really hard to know exactly the issues the other person faces if you’re not in their shoes. But from the experiences, looking from the outside in, the biggest ones I can see a lot of these, I will say are going to be very similar to some of the other candidates. A lot of it is hearing that they’re the same thing — like this is a good idea, and use it as a jumping point to. One a lot of kids have is trying to expand the mental health department. I think all of us have it in a few different ways how we want to do it, but one way we’re thinking about it is definitely expanding foreign language therapists so international students aren’t just left on their own, like in with others in their community. Again, it’s a sort of thing where I would want to build some sort of a bridge to them, maybe using these foreign language therapists to essentially reach out to them too. Because as nice it is to reach out to the entire student body, there are some people who it doesn’t really; you need to reach out to them specifically.
I would say beyond that there are other problems international students face a lot. I know right? Now there’s been a lot of anti-Asian racism nationwide. I don’t know the stats on how that’s translated into our campus, but I have to figure it translates in some way. That would definitely be one thing that I’d want to address and make sure that we keep an eye on, because I think it’s, it’s totally the right word. It’s not foolish, but maybe it’s ignorant to pretend as if something that’s happening nationwide couldn’t possibly be happening on campus. Beyond that, I think the biggest thing is building a bridge so they can come to us with issues they have, and we can help them act — not so much trying to guess what it is they’re dealing with and act on our own.
There have been recent accounts from students regarding a culture problem within USG. Students, especially students of color, have reported not feeling welcome in the organization. How do you plan to address this and make USG a more welcoming and representative environment for everyone?
The big thing about that one is another part of our platform, which is accountability. That’s actually the big debate, I’m sure you’re all aware of it. For anyone who might be reading the transcript post-interview, right now within USG is this free speech thing that’s happening, where some people are pushing for free speech to be enforced more so people don’t get censored, supposedly. Other people are basically saying this is an excuse to use hate speech.
I’m on the side of pretty much against the free speech bill. Of course, I’m for free speech. But pretty much this debate is saying that there are people who are trying to say we need to help protect free speech on campus, and they’re just saying that because there have been incidents, as you said, of toxicity in the USG culture, and they’re trying to protect that. So the whole point of accountability is, when you have free speech, people can say whatever they want, but when they choose to say hate speech, they get held accountable. And people think that getting held accountable means free speech has been taken away. It isn’t, you have your free speech. It’s the sort of thing where if you get suspended from the Senate, that’s because the majority of people decided that your free speech was hate speech. So you were held accountable for that. That’s kind of the big thing.
I think the big issue is people. That’s kind of the administrative answer. That’s a reaction. When we talk about culture, we have to talk about pre-reaction. How do we change it so people don’t even say that in the first place? I think a big thing is that too often we think of punishment. On a larger scale I’m anti-jail, because I’m not a big person that comes to punishment. How is somebody supposed to learn if they don’t come face to face with the thing — they’re hurting the person, they’re hurting with the community, they’re hurting?
“A big part of it for me is if we want to change the culture, there needs to be an expansion of university wide courses. There’s the one that all the candidates have been talking about, basic black history. They’re thinking of making that mandatory and changing it. I’m on board with that, and maybe even going further and including some that have to do with the intersectionality of climate change and race. And all these other sorts of things that basically combine like mental health, and LGBTQIA+ — they’re all interrelated in some way.”Nicholas Xenophontos, USG Pres. Candidate
A big part of it for me is if we want to change the culture, there needs to be an expansion of university wide courses. There’s the one that all the candidates have been talking about, basic black history. They’re thinking of making that mandatory and changing it. I’m on board with that, and maybe even going further and including some that have to do with the intersectionality of climate change and race. And all these other sorts of things that basically combine like mental health, and LGBTQIA+ — they’re all interrelated in some way. If we can have maybe even more than one course, that can help people at the very least see how other people have experiences they can’t understand.
The second thing is, there’s a lot of training within USG that doesn’t take into account race. I’ve heard accounts of people starting up clubs where they do leadership training that doesn’t really take into account what it’s like leading people of other races or other genders and other identities, and it falls apart because of that. I think a big part of the culture issue is that we create these standards to hold people to but then don’t try to teach them why we have those standards. That makes sense.
As a college student, there are a lot of ways to significantly impact the community around you aside from being involved in student government. For your own goals, and the issues that you’re passionate about addressing at UConn, why do you see being president of USG as being the best way to make a meaningful impact?
This is a really good question, especially for me and Abby’s ticket, since we’ve never been a part of USG. Ultimately has to be with what we want to do with USG. Essentially, from the outside, USG doesn’t seem like it does a lot. A lot of people, I think, treat it like they would their high school student government, where they’re like, “This is just some group of kids who are really into politics, but it doesn’t really affect me.”
They don’t realize the funding that they deal with. I want to say right on the record, I think I got it wrong in the debate, I was thinking of the net worth, when I said 1.7 million. I think 1.2 million was the net worth of USG this past year. That’s not how much funding they deal with Tier II. I want to put that on the record that I got that wrong. But they still deal with a lot of money in terms of funding. And they don’t realize it, — the president recently was made a paid position too. I feel like a lot more people would care. They don’t realize it’s out of the Student Activities fee, and our fee bill — 45 of those dollars go to USG, every semester. I feel like if people especially realize “Oh, my money is a part of this,” they would care a lot more.
The reason why we personally want to go for the USG president as the thing that can make the most difference is because we want to show people how much power it does have, and how important it is. It’s the sort of thing where it has this importance and it has this power but it doesn’t feel like it’s — I think a reason why a lot of people don’t take it too seriously is because it’s not used as much as it could. It’s not pushed as far as it could be. There’s the senate Executive Committee, which is for the entire university. That’s made of some faculty members from certain departments and one undergraduate who’s traditionally the president. That means you have like a direct line to some of the top faculty of the University. That’s not focused on enough as much as the other stuff.
That’s not talked about as much as how you being the representative of the student body means you can speak the voices of these people directly to these top members. I think oftentimes, people who are involved with, say, USG, or the political side of UConn, have a reputation in the past and in the future they have to take into account. Me and Abby not really having that are willing to push our boundaries as far as they need to go in order to get change done in almost a combative sense, but also not a burn bridges sense. We want this ability so that we can basically demonstrate to the general student body the things you can do with this position, and also push it to be greater than it’s been in the past, because we’re not limited by things most people are.
Hate speech has a shameful history at UConn and continues to threaten the well–being of many community members. At the same time, freedom of expression is very important to activists, to journalists and to many others. How exactly are these two concepts different?
If you want to get the literal, literal definition, and actually, this is something I saw Mason, one of the other candidates do, I’m not going to be able to quote it directly. But this is a way he defined it. I thought he did it really well. I think he said, quite literally, that hate speech is words that are hurtful or violent towards another person. Going further with that, violence doesn’t necessarily need to be physical, or people don’t realize that violence can be mental, it can be emotional.
The big difference between free speech and hate speech is it’s kind of like a square and a rectangle, where a square is a type of rectangle. So hate speech falls under the domain of free speech, in the sense where people say hate speech because they have freedom of speech. The difference is that you’re allowed to say it, but you’re going to be held accountable. The whole issue of hate speech is that people think, “Oh, I can say it and then there won’t be consequences because of freedom of speech.” No, the fact that you can say it alone is where the freedom of speech comes into it. The consequences are due to the choice you made to say it. So I guess it’s a sort of thing where if you lie, you can say whatever you want, and you can lie — but then if you’re caught and there are consequences, it’s because you chose to lie. So defining hate speech, like I said, was how Mason defined it. So with the something, basically is hateful causes violence. And then in regards to on campus, that’s why I’ll tie it back to the whole culture thing. I came from a predominantly, and when I say predominantly, I think there [were] only a few, like people of color in my whole high school, not just my grade.
I came from a mainly white high school, and people live in their own bubbles. People would say things that were just horrible a lot of the time, because they live in their own bubbles and don’t see beyond that. That’s why a lot of people think it’s not hate speech — because they’re not looking, they’re not seeing the people that they’re hurting. I say it’s like, if a tree falls in the forest, and no one’s around to hear it — they think if they say hate speech alone and there’s no one around that it’s hurting, then they’re fine. They don’t think about the atmosphere they build by saying that, or the people that might not be right in front of them that are further away that they’re hurting. I think making people understand that is key, and realizing why they’re being held accountable when they say hate speech, and how it’s different. Freedom of speech is the ability to say anything you want, including hate speech, and hate speech is saying things that are hateful or violent towards your physical, emotional, mental well-being. You’re held accountable for saying that. You are, depending on your stance, punished for it, or you are taught why it hurts people and taught why it’s the sort of thing. That’s how that’s how I view this sort of thing. You can say it, but you’re going to be held accountable.
Especially recently with the pandemic, students have reported issues with mental health services on campus. If elected, what changes would you encourage the administration to make regarding mental health?
Like you said, the pandemic has definitely exasperated it. But this has been an issue before, as I know from personal experience, in terms of the cost and the availability and just the whole system. I recently tried to figure it out, by going to their website and looking more into it, and this is how it is with a lot of stuff at UConn, but I can get to this in a later point, just looking for answers gives you more questions. But the way we’re thinking of solving it. Again, I say this, in most of the interviews and things that I do, feel like all the candidates are great choices, because we agree on a lot of things.
There are very specific things that we all have more personal experience with. So those are the things that we focus more on, and also things like different ways we say things — like we all agree, but we say them very differently. In terms of mental health, it definitely has to come with redirecting funds. Something all the candidates have been saying is pulling it from the UConn PD. Anyone who’s reading part of this interview should go listen to what Mason said at the debate about what it means to defund the police. It doesn’t mean to take away all their money, it means that there are some situations in which the police are not needed. The money that is used for that could go to mental health, like sexual assault and rape. The police do not need to handle that. It should be going to SHaW mental health so that they can reach out and a different face can help those people.
“The money that is used for that could go to mental health, like sexual assault and rape. The police do not need to handle that. It should be going to SHaW mental health so that they can reach out and a different face can help those people.”Nicholas Xenophontos, USG Pres. Candidate
Another thing is they’re already trying to redirect money to SHaW mental health. But that’s just going to increase the amount that we pay in our fee bill. And the issue our ticket has with that is that what about whether they have to pay a deductible or copay, or how much they have to pay if they have to pay with their insurance to SHaW mental health. The hoops you have to jump through to find that out, once you find it out, find out the cost, you’re going to be like, “Okay, no, this isn’t going to be worth it.” Again, speaking from personal experience.
It’s the sort of thing where even if we take more money from our fee bill, we don’t know how SHaW mental health uses that money. It’s not very public knowledge. It’s not easily accessible. It doesn’t mean that getting therapy is going to be easy for everyone and we can pay less with our insurance. That’s what’s really frustrating about it. It’s not so much about saying give them more money and leaving it that legislation doesn’t solve everything. It’s about holding them accountable to and saying, “Where is this money going? Tell us, we want it to go to these places. We want it to get new therapists specifically for LGBTQIA. Plus, specifically for BIPOC students, specifically for international students. And we want it all to be cheaper. Why are we paying more than our fee bill?” And we’re not taught how that’s changing anything. That’s our stance on that one.
Even as the university reopens, there are fears of budget cuts in UConn’s future. How will you ensure that student wants are communicated holistically and firmly to the university?
Me and Abby are very firm. I think I’ve said this before in terms of the fact that we don’t really have any ties to anything politically. For better or for worse, we are very, we can be firm. We can also compromise though, which is something that we recognize. Sometimes you’re just told now, and as frustrating as it is, you can’t do anything about it. It’s not so much about turning away and making a new piece of legislation as it is bartering in a sense. In terms of holistically, that one’s the toughest one, because so far USG, the way they’ve handled that is giving everybody a seat at the table, which is the best first step — making sure everyone is accounted for — and making sure that the needs of every community on campus is accounted for. But I think one community they don’t take into account is the people who are not part of these organizations — who just go to UConn because they’re getting a degree, the people who are still impacted because their tuition rates are going up. And the budget cuts to whatever major they’re a part of, are still affecting their department, but aren’t necessarily a part of say, any of the cultural centers or any of the student organizations. And thus in a way, they don’t have a say at USG.
I think a big part of that is direct outreach. If we want to holistically be able to talk about budget cuts to the admin, we have to reach out to everybody. And we have to be doing it continually. It goes beyond emails and notifications. So much is walking up to people randomly and just asking them, asking anybody to get an idea. It’s the people that I don’t know, I can’t think of where that train of thought was going. But ultimately, in terms of the budget cuts, I think another big one is kind of being honest with ourselves. I think one thing I’ve been a little bit afraid to talk about is the athletics department at UConn, because people love UConn athletics. And our basketball teams are amazing. But there are some places where the money doesn’t necessarily need to be there, if I’m being blunt. And that’s, again to represent if you’re going to be the student body president, you have to be representative of everybody. That might be my personal view. But I would not want that to translate if the entire student body was like, “We don’t take any money from there. That’s that.” I think that’s definitely one place that people don’t talk about enough when it comes to budget cuts, and about how money is taken. I’ve been doing a lot of research to get the name. It’s the Office of Budgets at UConn. You can see some information for the fiscal year 2020. And you can see how they took money because of COVID. They did take like $20 million out from different departments, and seeing the way some of the money is taken from academics versus athletics is at least surface level troubling. I’ve been a little bit afraid to say that, but that is one thing. When I talk about budget cuts I want to bring it up just as an idea. That’s a big part of our platform is we’re not going into this office with necessarily solid plans so much as we are going in with solid ideas because of the fact that if we’re not willing to be flexible we realize that our plans might not necessarily be exactly how the entire student body wants them. We need to change them to satisfy the majority of the student body, you know? That’s what I would say. Thank you.
Many students are upset about UConn’s contributions to the climate crisis through fossil fuel developments and other unsustainable practices. How will you hold the university administration accountable to pursuing renewable energy and to protecting the environment?
So this is always this one’s always hard. I am a sociology major, by the way, and I might be becoming a triple major with environmental studies, not sure if I want to be a third major or a minor. Renewable energy is great. And it is something we should be working towards. But actually, a bigger thing is sustainable culture. We want to eventually move to renewable energy, and eventually move to completely green energy. But as we’re doing that, we have to recognize that even once we make it to that point, if we don’t have a culture of sustainability, that’s not going to matter. This is where it gets kind of weird, and if I’m being real with myself, maybe it sounds kind of hippie, but not in a bad way. But just in a very, spiritual way, in the sense where we have to connect better, a lot of people look at it objectively, in terms of technology — we need to improve the technology, we need to basically be moving towards completely green technology. But just as much as we need to be doing that, we need to be moving towards a more spiritual connection to why it’s important to protect the Earth, and understanding not just the science of why we’re all going to die because of climate change, but also understanding on a deeper level, how does it make you feel? How does it make you feel to see these things? How does it make you feel to think about these things? How does it make you feel to step outside for a day and lie in the grass? I think the biggest part when we talk about that, though, is realizing that climate change affects everyone differently. It’s not just climate change, in the sense that the environment is different for everyone. A big thing — this is worldwide, too — is how BIPOC communities are affected by climate change. They’re affected way worse than everybody else. In fact, the group that’s affected probably the worst is Indigenous peoples, because they’re the ones who for centuries have been protecting the earth and taking care of it and rely on it the most. Now that we’re starting to destroy it, even though they’re the ones who have done the least to little, to no damage to it. It’s now hurting, now the damages to the environment are hurting them the most. I have to recognize those facts, and pretty much lift those people up so that they can have a voice and they can be the ones leading us in terms of how we should be moving forward as a sustainable culture.
“… you have to understand that the environment is different for everyone. It’s very easy from my perspective being a White male to think I could just go and lie in the grass in the woods. But for say, your average Black UConn student, it might not be. It’s not that easy.”Nicholas Xenophontos, USG Pres. Candidate
The last thing I want to say was that beyond just climate change, you have to understand that the environment is different for everyone. It’s very easy from my perspective being a White male to think I could just go and lie in the grass in the woods. But for say, your average Black UConn student, it might not be. It’s not that easy. You think back to the man in Central Park, who was just birdwatching and that lady called the cops on him. You don’t have the same sense of security. It’s understanding these experiences that feel like, “Oh, everyone feels blank about blank.” No, that’s not true. That’s what you think because of your experiences, but that’s not true. Understanding that in terms of sustainability, so that we take everyone into account. You know, a good example is that environmental sit-ins, even though you might feel comfortable doing them, other people may not. And the reason why is because of their identity and you have to understand that. It’s pretty much not just about bringing people to the table so much as making them the head of the table, making them help lead and just helping them lead and being there side by side with them.
We’re about out of time, so are there any last comments you want to make to our readers to pitch your candidacy?
A lot of the people who might be reading this might already be members of USG or within what I call the USG bubble. It’s really easy to feel okay, I’m going to go with the person who has the most experience with these sort of things, and who I maybe know the best. Personally, I don’t necessarily want to be discredited for the fact that we haven’t been a part of it. For as long our experience has been growing exponentially. And if a lot of what we’re saying sounds similar to the other candidates or sounds similar to ideas that are already in works, it’s because we’re good listeners, and we think those are good ideas. I’m never going to hide away from the fact that all the candidates have very similar platforms, because we’re all good choices. We’re all listening to each other. We’re all constantly expanding and learning. I think a big thing is that, for anyone who’s within the USG bubble, you might want to put a little bit of trust into me when I say the world of UConn, even if you think you understand outside of that bubble, you do not as well as you think you do. It is. And it’s not necessarily from the point of view that things are worse than you think. It’s not even so much as to be like, “Well, I know people don’t care that much.” It’s not even that it’s just people. To them, USG doesn’t exist. It’s just non-existent. It’s beyond even just non-existent. It’s the sort of thing where somebody like me starts running, because they just got an email about it. And they’re like, haha, this would be cool. I wonder if it’d be cool if I was president of whatever this is. And it’s lucky that I decided to stay in and do as much research as I can and learn as much as I have, and be as active as I am. Because I really do feel like USG needs this fresh perspective in terms of outside of the USG bubble and popping in a sense, and showing that there is a larger campus beyond the people who are just involved in all these organizations.