Leaders of student organizations attend the first-ever Conference for Social Change

Credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor Credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor Credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor Credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor Credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor Credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor Credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor Credit: Theodore Teichman/Assistant Photo Editor

On Saturday morning, leaders of student organizations ranging from Dancer’s Symposium to Math Club gathered in the Cohon Center for the first ever Conference for Social Change, hosted by Student Body President Vaasavi Unnava and Vice President Aaron Gutierrez’s cabinet.

A key component of their campaign for the office in the spring was their “model for social change,” centered around their idea of the President’s Initiative. They proposed to “mobilize club presidents around a common issue, and reward the clubs and organizations that provide innovative cultural solutions on our campus.” The Conference for Social Change is the realization of this campaign promise.

At the onset of the event, senior Electrical and Computer Engineering major Arnelle Etienne, the cabinet’s director of advocacy and conference organizer, told the group, “Today is the starting point.” The conference’s goal was to unite student leaders around conversations on Carnegie Mellon’s social issues in order to open doors for group collaboration throughout the year.

Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno offered an opening address to inspire the student leaders. She reflected on students in the past who have inspired her with their collaboration and impact, and she reminded the students in the room of our collective “commitment to be agents of change.”

During two sessions, students had the choice of six conversations to join, facilitated by students and staff currently working on those issues on campus. The options included: race relations, led by senior Mechanical Engineering major Randy Garcia and M. Shernell Smith, Assistant Director for the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs; financial literacy and security, led by Bonnie Lack from the Student Financial Aid Office; the international community, led by sophomore Dietrich student Shubhangi Bhotika and Office of International Education Director Linda Gentile; sexual assault and relationship violence prevention, led by fifth year MFA student Shannyn Rinker and Jamie Edwards, Assistant Director in the Office of Title IX Initiatives; civic engagement, led by junior Civil Engineering major James Crnkovich; and mental health, led by sophomore Dietrich student Kelly Kim.

During the civic engagement conversation, senior business administration and Human-Computer Interaction major Vanessa Kalu noted, “There’s so much intersectionality in our interests but we mostly operate in silos,” referencing the individual nature of many student organizations, despite all the overlap. She offered an example of success, however; during the water crisis in Flint, Mich., SPIRIT partnered with Sustainable Earth during their inaugural Sustainability Weekend to create an overlapping effort.
In order to incentivize successful collaboration, the SBP’s cabinet has offered $2,000 for fiscal year 2018 to the initiative with the greatest impact during this school year. Organizers also plan to compile the contact information of all attendees in order to facilitate collaboration in the future.

After the event, Bhotika expressed, “I hope it grows and snowballs into real change.”

Crnkovich, a representative of Partners Allied in Civic Engagement (PACE) shared that he has plans to connect with students he met at the event, and is cautiously optimistic about the potential for united student organizations to bring change to campus. His concern was that emphasis more often lies on the leaders and starters of change, but not enough on the maintenance of the momentum.

In order to focus on the follow through, Unnava and her cabinet “will be regularly checking in with organization leaders after the conference to help them clarify and execute their ideas,” equipping groups with the necessary contacts and information.

After the event, Unnava expressed, “I was deeply moved by the care and thought these student leaders are putting into bringing social change into the extracurricular experience... I can’t wait to see what everyone does.”