“They’re very pro-student. They’ve gone above and beyond in their attempts to represent their student body,” says Vicky Owles, assistant director for campus life and SGA advisor (the Student Government Association is comprised of an SGC at UP and Biscayne Bay campuses, respectively). “All decisions that are made, services that are provided, and programs that have been completed have one thing in mind: students. This SGC has been very thoughtful in its mission to be there for the students and to represent the needs of the university.”
SGC began the school year with “Kick-Off 2002”—a freshman convocation with free T-shirts and an invitation to food, fun, and entertainment. Students, faculty, and administrators were on hand, along with the FIU Dazzlers and cheerleaders, rappers, poetry readers, and DJs. The event motivated students to get involved while introducing them SGA.
As part of its “Welcome Week” festivities designed to boost school pride and introduce students to opportunities at the university, SGA continued its successful “Level 5” dance party inaugurated last year. Held on top of a parking garage, the event provided DJ-hosted music, dancing, and refreshments—all in a safe environment.
Greatly expanding on an initiative started by last year’s administration, “Reach Out” is a comprehensive program designed to improve communication channels between students and SGA. It started simply, with visits to clubs and organizations, but this year’s group went way beyond that. Just one of the many new parts of this year’s program, “Campaign Days,” involved two days of simply promoting SGA to students by showing them how SGA serves as a representative for students’ needs. SGA members passed out flyers, answered hundreds of questions, and conducted surveys. The group even designed an SGA logo and came up with a color scheme, printing up red T-shirts, mugs, and squeezers with the slogan, “We make things happen!”
“Our administration’s greatest strength is its accessibility toward students,” Morffi says. “We pride ourselves on an open-door policy and have become known for working one-on-one with our students. This is important because we are able to know first-hand what student concerns are and address them accordingly.”
SGA also improved “CATS”—FIU’s shuttle system—which transports students to the off-campus Engineering Center. Now it also goes to nearby shopping malls and grocery stores to assist on-campus housing students. An on-campus bus terminal will be added to make commuting easier.
Ushering in FIU’s inaugural football season, SGA funded the painting of the school logo inside the Graham University Center and paw prints around campus leading to FIU’s football stadium, “The Cage.”
In yet another way to help students, SGA established the “Academic Rights Advisory Program” to ensure that students sitting in a grievance hearing are fully aware of their rights.
“The president is one who really takes time to be involved in everything that goes on, on and off campus. This has been a clear asset,” says Sara Lipman, director of campus life. “She (and her administration) also work hard on the concept of serving the students. This is definitely a positive difference [from last year’s administration].”
For the first time at FIU, on-line voting was successfully implemented for homecoming court and SGA special elections.
SGA lobbies through the Florida Student Association (FSA), with Morffi serving as treasurer/secretary of FSA’s board. In addition, SGA split its director of student lobbying office into two—director of legislative affairs and director of community and internal affairs to lobby at both the state and local levels.
Continuing to use its newsletter, SGC Quarterly, SGC communicates to students about its programs, events, officers, and elections. Their detailed web site also makes it available on-line along with news, events, the constitution, the by-laws, the budget, meeting minutes, photos, e-mail addresses, and links. The events calendar is not quite up-to-date, and it lacks a “news” link on the navigation bar (the various items are only on the home page). The overall look and feel is nice but seems more artsy than clean. Also, the on-line newsletter is also not quite up-to-date, and each page is provided as a picture rather than a standard PDF file that can be zoomed in, printed like the original, and searched. For a top-rate SG at a large public university, the web site could use a little work, serving students more as a services-and-information-portal that goes beyond an “About SGC” site.
SGA also gets the word out through “SGA Notes,” a regular feature published in the school newspaper, The Beacon, and compiled by an editor in attendance at SGA’s meetings.
One way to connect with students is by getting them upstairs to the third-floor office via free “Blue Books”—the little ruled books students use for tests, assignments, and notes. This encourages students to come up and see the office, learn where it’s located for future inquiries, and ask SGC questions. The Graham University Center will have a circular addition next year that houses all of SGC together on the first floor for even better student access.
To keep a strong SGA going, transition plans are in place through per-office transition manuals, two retreats, and its unique Student Council Intern Program (SCIP). The program lets students experience SGA and prepare them to run for office the following year, if they choose. “The program is a fundamental aspect of transition of leaders in SGA,” Morffi says. Interns help plan various council meetings as well as implement their own programs such as planning a departmental holiday party along with a toy drive for needy children, compiling statistical reports of student views to present to the administration, and even producing an SGA video profile as an outreach tool for FIU freshman experiences classes and at high school Student Councils. Even the interns have a retreat of their own. “Though they may not all remain as council members in future years, by the end of their tenure as interns, they have established themselves in numerous student organizations on campus and inevitably ensure their involvement in campus life and student advocacy at FIU,” Morffi says.
This administration is doing all the right things, and doing them well, as evidenced by their own student survey which revealed that nearly 80 percent of students agree that SGA members are approachable, that SGA has a strong presence on campus, and that SGA keeps students’ best interests in mind.
Even the The Beacon gives it its blessing. “This year's SG is probably better than last year's because they're more approachable and less political,” says Hatzel Vela, editor in chief. “We never have a problem when we're trying to quote them for stories. They're real—they're students first and that's what makes them stand out. Jessica understands and respects my job and vice versa. We feel comfortable with each other and are both well aware that part of our jobs is to make sure students are treated fairly.”
“This year's SGA is a very vocal, responsible, supportive, and outgoing group,” says Reginald Garcon, assistant dean of students and SGA advisor. “They’ve established a great relationship with their SGA advisors as well as FAU administration.”
Paez says that “FAU is by far one of the most diverse universities in the state”—so diverse, in fact, that SGA created its own Division of Cultural Diversity. The division then hosted the “Festival of Nations” and the “Sundance Festival,” held in the spring and fall, respectively. The Festival of Nations included dances, performances, fashion shows, and concerts. Sundance kicked off with a "Festival of Ethnic Foods” and then continued with a “Music Fest” and performances by campus ethnic clubs and organizations.
To help their diverse student populace stay informed, SGA joined USA Today’s “Collegiate Readership Program,” which provides free copies of the paper along with a local newspaper. “Information is a student’s most valuable asset,” Paez says. “This [program] has translated into a more informed and civically active student body.” SGA funded two-thirds of the program while the university picked up the rest. “This is a clear example of how an SG can work with its university administration to bring about programs that are beneficial for the students,” he says.
Speaking of the administration, SGA helps students chart a “class”—not crash—course through the services of Pick-a-Prof. Via its web site, students can navigate through what Paez calls a “labyrinth” of class choices to make decisions rationally rather than based on luck. The site offers student feedback on various professors along with grading histories, and professors can even post their bio and class information. “The response has been fantastic,” Paez says. “Students love the system. They feel it finally allows them to express themselves freely about their classes. The response from the faculty has also been positive.”
These types of programs are the result of an SGA that’s improved over last year in the areas of communication, accountability, visibility, and reliability. “They are truly active and involved in every aspect of campus life. They, not just the president, are visible and talk to students and administrators,” says Dr. Constance L. Foley, assistant vice president for student affairs. “As an administrator, I know I can count on SG to provide me excellent feedback regarding programs in student affairs and to be proactive as well as reactive within the dynamic environment of FAU. I’ve been an assistant vice president here for five years, and this is the first year that I can say I recognize and have interacted with more than just the president and vice president.”
To communicate with students, SGA posts an on-line, one-page monthly newsletter, OWL Update, along with a four-page, once-a-semester newsletter, Talon Talk, that reviews SGA’s goals and achievements. SGA also distributes a brochure of services, a handbook that provides students with an inside look at SGA (hardcopy and on-line, they claim, though it’s not currently available), and a “Your Dollar’s Worth” brochure designed to help “students overcome academic problems by pointing them in the right direction,” Paez says.
While these publications and information are at its web site, SGA could improve it by eliminating annoying pop-up windows or tagging them to appear only during the first time visit to the site. Navigating back and forth through the site punishes visitors—especially when there are two pop-ups, one announcing SGA elections and the other making an appeal to “Save Bright Futures and stop tuition increases!” Also, getting rid of the music—FAU’s alma mater?—would be a step in the right direction along with making the site less graphic intensive and more information focused. As it is, loud colors, annoying pop-ups, and fuzzy pictures hide some decent content, but even some of that’s only partially up-to-date (various reports and minutes are woefully behind by months).
Knowing how to embrace on-line opportunities, SGA implemented on-line voting in spring 2000. Voter turnout nearly doubled but still stands at only nine percent, which isn’t a true reflection of representative government.
And in an effort to boost statewide lobbying efforts, SGA rejoined FSA, with Paez serving as chairman of FSA’s board. “The first step for our administration was to unite with the rest of universities in the state,” Paez says.
To keep this SGA going strong for years to come, SGA holds a university-wide retreat augmented by campus SGA retreats and training. While a general transition manual exists for nearly every office, only a couple have a comprehensive one, which SGA wants to remedy. “We’re taking the approach that we’re writing these manuals as if our best friend in the world would be taking over for us,” Paez says.
“Under the leadership of Pablo Paez, our SGA has been a model of how a program should be run,” says Dr. Richard L. Osburn, interim president. “Pablo and his associates in SGA have made certain that available funds are used to maximize student benefit and involvement on all of our seven campuses. This year's SGA is the best that we’ve ever had. The thing that makes them stand out this year is the dedication of the entire membership of the SGA. They work as a cohesive unit to make good things happen.”
“This was disheartening to everyone because Jason Crawford was widely respected and really gave his heart and soul to SGA,” says Dr. Douglas Pearson, associate vice president for student affairs. “Many groups may have stumbled, fallen into a power struggle, or simply stalled. Not this group. Joe Rieland quickly stepped up and assumed leadership, and the SGA rallied around him to pick up where Jason left off. They didn't miss a beat. And more importantly, they did it for Jason Crawford—who they recognized was going through a much more trying situation than they were.”
But Rieland gives Crawford all the credit: “I was lucky under the circumstances because he set the bar for me so that I could do the best job I can,” Rieland says. Erin Sandonato filled the vice president spot.
While SGAs at many other schools commemorated the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, UWF’s low-key, somber event became more poignant in retrospect with Crawford being called to fight in the “war on terrorism.”
But they didn’t know that would be the case. In the meantime, there was work to be done, and Crawford and company did it. SGA hosted “Midnight Madness” in to boost support for the men’s basketball team. Throwing the party the night before the first official day of practice, SGA handed out T-shirts with the event’s logo and school mascot, provided food, raffle prizes, and a DJ, and held “goofy games” and a slam-dunk contest. At midnight, the official practice season began with a full team scrimmage.
To give fellow students one last break before finals, SGA sponsors “Argostock”—think Woodstock with a “battle of the bands.” Local and student bands perform for students—who pitch tents and hang out on the intramural fields—with prizes for top groups.
Like nearly all of the Florida pubic universities, UWF’s SGA is part of FSA, joining the others to lobby Tallahassee. Before being called up, Crawford served as chairman of FSA’s board.
To communicate those efforts and its work for students, SGA uses a series of open forums, a campus-wide town hall meeting, and a clean web site. In terms of a clean look and organization, the site is probably tops in the state at any level. It includes lobbying news (though outdated) and information about SGA, officers, open positions, each branch, and a linked calendar of events and a PDF version of SGA’s four-page newsletter. However, the site is a bit slow when navigating from page to page, most likely due to animated page transitions that add little value. And meeting minutes are nowhere to be found, though outdated meeting agendas are there. Remedy these shortcomings and add some campus news and links, and it could be the model SGA portal for others to imitate.
Though SGA has been using on-line voting for three years, they hope this year to triple the tepid five-percent voter turnout rate by adding polling places and including on-line bios and campaign goals for the office of president and vice president.
SGA’s transition plans include three retreats, one each during the summer, fall, and spring. At the fall event, SGA brings in a guest speaker to facilitate their goal-planning session. Afterward, members attend the SGA-sponsored “College Night” at a Pensacola Ice Pilots hockey game, with proceeds going to benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“I’m constantly impressed with their diligence, responsibility, and maturity. They also work with the university administration rather than see them as adversaries,” says Dr. Linda O. Dye, former vice president for student affairs who just retired at the end of January. “One thing that really makes them stand out is that despite losing Jason mid-year, the group has continued their great efforts without loss of momentum or enthusiasm. SGA is more than its executive leadership. It’s a group of dedicated and caring individuals.”
Apparently, that respect goes both ways. “SGA took the time to pay tribute to [Dr. Dye at her retirement] in many different ways,” Pearson says. “Among them was to dedicate a bench and garden to her, and to escort her—via trolley with the SGA senate and a bagpipe escort—off campus on the last day of her job. They are a class act and they represent college students well.”
Copyright © 2006 Oxendine Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved