What has the Undergraduate Student Senate been working on this year?

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

As the outgoing Senate Chair, I want to end the year by providing all of our undergraduate constituents with a summary of the work we have done throughout this academic year. This is the end of my fourth year as a member of Senate, and my second year as its Chair. In these years, I have talked to a lot of students about Senate, and get two questions most frequently. Firstly: what is Senate? As college-wide elected representatives, we meet every week as a group to discuss rising campus issues, hear from university leadership, and find new ways to make the CMU experience better for all undergraduates. Secondly: what does Senate actually do? Much of Senate’s work takes place in our six standing committees, and each has accomplished a lot over the past academic year. This recap will, hopefully, provide everyone with detail on what Senate has done, what we can do, and what we can build on in the future.

One of Senate’s most important and fundamental jobs is to use our funds and resources to alleviate costs for students and improve the campus experience. During the Fall semester, the Academic Affairs committee disbursed over $10,000 to undergraduates to cover unexpected course expenses. At the same time, the committee has been working hard to lower course costs across the university, and ensure greater transparency and upfront information about the costs of every course. This must be a campus where no student faces any financial obstacles to enrolling—and succeeding—in any of their courses. Thanks to the Finance committee, student organizations this year received over $20,000 in Special Allocations funding. This provides support for new organizations, events, and projects. Senate also partnered on projects led by our Student Body President and Vice President: first, to investigate student payment for work furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus; and to partially fund a new photo booth that will make professional headshots free to all. We have also improved students’ access to media: this year, we launched digital access to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and USA Today, and the final vote taken by the 2021-2022 Senate was to extend campus-wide digital access to The New York Times.

Senate’s committees additionally share the goal of making our campus a fairer and more equitable place for all students. The Advocacy committee has been working with Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) to improve awareness of and access to mental health resources on campus. For the past two years, the Business Affairs committee has been focusing on improving hourly wages for student workers, hosting our second Forum for Student Workers last week to gain further insight on the issues student workers are facing. During the Fall, the Business Affairs committee and the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) surveyed almost 2,000 students on how university dining can be improved, and we have worked closely with Dining Services on implementing students’ feedback.

This year was shaped by our return to in-person events, and our continued navigation of the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic. Senate’s Campus Life committee helped to propel our campus’ return to in-person events, with raffles and giveaways at athletics games in the Fall and the February Strip Crawl, where we partnered with several Strip District businesses to offer discounts to CMU students—providing activities for the campus community and strengthening our connections to the wider city of Pittsburgh. First Lectures—which provides graduating seniors the opportunity to reflect on their experience at CMU—is one of Senate’s longest-running annual events. This year, eight graduating seniors spoke to over 120 people about the experience they had at CMU and the knowledge they can pass on to future Tartans.

Senate also serves as a bridge between undergraduates and the administration. Two weeks ago, the Finance committee organized Senate’s second Finance Town Hall, bringing university leadership to our weekly general body meeting to answer questions about tuition, university spending, and financial aid. Throughout the year, Senate held numerous discussions with administrators about the future of housing, dining, sustainability, the CMU Police Department, student health insurance, and the academic calendar (to name a few). In February, we spoke with President Farnam Jahanian about the university’s long-term plans. All of our general body meetings are open to all students, and the meeting minutes from every Senate meeting are available online.

As members of Senate, our job of representing fellow students goes beyond campus issues: we must also ensure that students have adequate representation in decisions which affect all of our lives, but are made far outside of campus. With the GSA, Senate co-hosted a town hall series with the candidates in the Democratic primary election for Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district. These town halls, held during March, were attended by undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff, and can be a model for future civic engagement efforts as we look ahead to elections this November and beyond. We often hear about our campus being “disengaged,” but events like these town halls show otherwise. Senate can and should take more action to organize student energy around civic engagement and support efforts by other students and student organizations to build a culture of civic engagement in the undergraduate body at CMU.

We must also continue to improve our communication with the students we represent. Students should know who their representatives are, and how Senate can help deal with the issues being faced around campus. This year, we took internal steps to clarify the roles of our committees so we can be a more cohesive organization and strengthen our external communication. Next year, we hope to begin a regular newsletter, and will continue to highlight Senate’s work on social media (where you should follow us!) We also always welcome anyone interested in joining Senate. You don’t need any prior similar experience—I joined Senate completely out of curiosity—and every undergraduate can contribute a unique perspective on how our campus experience can be better. In the Fall, Senate will hold elections to fill any remaining vacant seats. Updates on this will be shared closer to the beginning of the next semester.

The work of all of Senate’s members is what made our events possible and facilitated important discussions in the interests of the students we represent. There is a lot that we can look back on this year as achievements, but equally, much that we can and must build on next semester and in the years ahead—that is testament to the dedication of everyone who served on Senate for the past year. It has been an immense privilege to serve as Chair of this year’s Senate, and to end my own time on Senate after four years as part of a group which I have learned a lot from, and which has left future members in a great place to continue being effective advocates and making meaningful change at CMU on behalf of those who elect us.