This Ain’t No High School Student Government

Elections season is rapidly approaching here at Stanford and soon the student body will be flooded with a deluge of e-mails, Facebook group invites, and catchy one-liner slogans. Flyers will adorn dorm walls, people in your classes will wear candidate T-shirts, and White Plaza will barely be visible behind all the posters and banners. Candidates can look forward to one of the most grueling weeks of their Stanford careers, or so I hear. And all to what end? For many people with their eye on one of fifteen Senator seats, a chance to advocate their peers’ concerns, partner with administrators on various issues, and move towards the general betterment of this fine institution – not to mention pad their resume.

Having worked with the Undergraduate Senate for nearly three years, one as a lowly Senate Associate and two as the Secretary, I’ve been able to observe this organization from a relatively unbiased perspective. I’ve come to this conclusion. Despite the oftentimes less-than-stellar remarks directed toward the Senate, and the ASSU at large, many people really do enjoy a variety of benefits derived from this body, whether they realize it or not. Everything from deciding which student groups get funded, to free speech advocacy, to services like the airport shuttle… it all comes from the Senate. I’ve seen both the good and the bad these last few years, so let me share a few thoughts.

This isn’t high-school student government anymore. Stanford politics is almost like a microcosm of “real” politics with opposing factions vying to advance causes, hearings for various groups for funding, and the occasional ad hominem attack. I was surprised to learn about the intensive elections process, the volumes of by-laws that govern the body, and the influence a single senator can have.

Don’t expect to be liked by everyone all the time, or even ever. No matter what you do, at least one person will have a problem with it. Don’t expect to be thrust into office and accomplish your entire agenda right away. Some of the issues the Senate has grappled with have been a source of contention for quite a while – campaign finance issues come to mind. On the other hand, do expect to be able to effect real change if you work for it. The Senate this year has made our campus greener, helped save Mausoleum Party, and instituted more measures for internal accountability.

The most well received Senate actions are the ones that are very visible and tangible in their effects, as opposed to legislation or resolutions. For example, the most popular event I can recall was a free bike-light and Jamba Juice giveaway put on by the SLHE committee two years ago. I have never seen so many people in White Plaza at once, but what can I say? People like free stuff. By contrast, a lot of people don’t even know that the Senate has worked to extend library hours and swim facility hours. Recent budget cuts have made these kind of showy events less common, but it comes up time and time again – I’ll often hear people ask, “When’s the next In-N-Out study break? Those are awesome.”

Despite all the work that goes on, everyone still somehow manages to have fun. You won’t find closer friends than some of these Senators. Some of the standout memories are Senator Zachary Warma’s unforgettable, alcohol-soaked farewell speech (rivaling past Senator Luukas Ilves’ toga-and-scroll performance), having to dial Senator Shelley Gao in via Skype while she was in Washington, D.C. for a quarter, and staffing Mausoleum Party my freshman year. It’s been a long and eventful ride, but I won’t be returning to serve next year; enough people tell me that I’m insane for staying as long as I already have.

As I’ve said before, a lot of students recognize the importance of the ASSU and the UG Senate on a broad level, but may not be very knowledgeable about how the whole system works. If you’ll forgive the cliché, I’d like to end with a call to action to each and every one of you who shares a vested interest in student life on campus. Go out and do something to get involved with the ASSU – voice your opinions to one of the senators, learn how the Special Fees process works here, or even run for public office if you’re feeling bold enough. There’ve been many times when I’ve been frustrated with the politics of the system or asked why I was sitting in a room with 15 people all trying to speak at once, but if I had to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat.

Derek Lu ‘11 has served as the ASSU Senate Secretary for the past two years, and as a Senate Associate his freshman year. He thinks the true measure of a man is the ability to sit through more than five 4+ hour-long Senate meetings, and live to tell the tale without swearing profusely.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review