ASSU: Gateway to the Rhodes

The ASSU, long the bastion of student participation in the wider Stanford community, has produced many leaders. A cursory look at the number of Rhodes scholars coming from with the ASSU’s ranks may suggest that involvement in Stanford’s student government improves ones chances of winning the distinguished scholarship. However, Varun Sivaram ’11, the latest ASSU Rhodes scholar believes that student government is an excellent training ground only if one is committed to public service.

According to Sivaram, there are two ways to look at the contribution ASSU experience provides.  On one level, it undoubtedly improves your chances to get the scholarship. “I had at least two questions in my actual interview about leadership experience and formative leadership effect which were linked to my leadership position at ASSU,” he said.

But the Rhodes committee is also anecdotally known to like civically minded students. Sivaram explained, “It always looks good if you have demonstrated some interest in public service [or] civic service.” As in most student organizations, the potential to leverage the experience of one’s involvement increases with increasing responsibility.

While it is not the only source of meaningful leadership experience, with its myriad of experiences, the ASSU is a microcosm of the real policy making sphere.

For instance, it is immensely useful to have balanced a budget, especially when two competing political coalitions have set their demands at the opposite ends of the spectrum. “There are many issues that play right into that divide—it tends to be the case that the coalition backed by students would advocate more liberal funding policies while the other would argue for more restrictive [or] conservative policies,” Sivaram elaborated.

The opportunity to work through political divisions and fiscal issues makes the ASSU a valuable training ground for tackling bigger issues later on. “We have to make sure that we can do it [while] keeping in mind our constituent’s interest,” Sivaram said. As a senator, he made an effort to go to dining halls to communicate with fellow students and conducted surveys to ensure that the policy alignment was not biased. But Sivaram insists that ASSU is still far less complicated than the federal government, so students should look at an experience in the ASSU as a truly limited reflection of reality.

He believes that the more important product of his ASSU experience was a motivation to enter into public service. “My experience here at ASSU is more likely to make me want to continue with public service. I wanted to do it before I got into ASSU, but after this experience, I am certain that yes, that is what I want to do,” he said.

For the Rhodes scholarship and others that seem to favor students who intend to enter public service and science to combat societal problems, the early motivation to enter public service could prove critical to winning the scholarships.

When approaching involvement in extracurricular organizations like the ASSU, students should be wary of certain mistakes. According to Sivaram, it is a poor decision procedure to view ASSU involvement merely as a resume booster or singular pathway to the Rhodes. He emphasized the highly individual nature of the scholarships and the importance of one’s personal narrative.

“In the end, individual expression and exploration [are] more important than creating a unified resume,” says Sivaram. A prima facie glance at the resume might suggest an overarching trajectory, but this apparent purpose masks a genuine love for learning and a high level for intellectual curiosity. ASSU experience only matters if a candidate can positively articulate benefit gained or change enacted in the process.

For serious Rhodes candidates, Sivaram suggests identifying a pervasive problem in society such as poverty, education or as in his case, energy, and working to alleviate it. Furthermore, international experience is very important as it helps aspirants tie their existing work into addressing the problems that they have identified. Moreover, the global perspective that travel provides facilitates opportunities to be active members of a wider community.

Sivaram cautions that not enough credit is given to athletic performance, but that academics form the sine qua non for any legitimate consideration for the scholarship. “Grades are by far the most important thing. Never ever sacrifice grades to anything,” he warned.


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