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Sunday, July 23, 2017

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Meet your 2017 SGA presidential candidates


Beginning at midnight on Feb. 28, students will be able to vote for one of four presidential candidates, and senators from their corresponding parties. | Ajani Stewart/ The Cougar

The election for the 54th Administration of the Student Government Association is around the corner, and The Cougar recently sat down with the four presidential candidates to talk platforms, ambitions and qualifications.

For the 2017-2018 term, Winni Zhang is running under the party Spirit RED; Robert Comer is running under Vote for Meme; Jordyn Chaffold is running with House of Innovation; and Shawn Bhatia is running with REDvolution.

The election will be held on Get Involved from Feb. 28 through March 2. The presidential debate, sponsored by The Cougar, will take place at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 22.

Shawn Bhatia

The Cougar: What sets you apart from the other presidential candidates?

I think when it comes to the other presidential candidates, first off, they’re all great people. But, I would say it’s the professional experience and experience running registered student organizations on campus. I’ve had experience at a law firm, interning on Capitol Hill, interning at a political non-profit, interning at a civil rights group. I think the professional experience is very important when it comes to running an organization like SGA.

It has a budget of around $145,000, has influence over a good amount of students on campus. I think the leadership, whoever wins, needs to have had professional experience in the past because that way, you can run it professionally and you don’t have that inexperience.

I managed a cultural organization. I managed a political organization. Managing organizations, managing a campaign — it really sets you apart on how you’re going to govern and advocate for the students. Every single person I work with, I’m happy to give a referral that they’ll say good things about me.

TC: What is your administration going to do differently from the current one?

The three points of our campaign are affordability, accessibility and diversity. I think the current administration had some trouble getting off the ground, but I think that they’ve started pushing a lot of what their platform was.

But I would say the one thing we’re really pushing is being realistic with our goals. When it comes to affordability, one thing that we want to do is make sure that we’re lowering student fees or freezing student fees, and that’s something we wanna push for.

Another thing is we want to advocate for detailed tuition plans to be sent out to each student in an email. I think if students know where their money is going, they can question that reasoning as to why money is being spent on a certain subject.

Everything that we say can be done, but it comes to that we’re looking for that realistic sense. And another idea that we’re focusing on is reaching out to students throughout the entire year. I think a problem we have is that candidates, during this election cycle for two and a half weeks speak at student organizations, speak at classrooms, and that should really continue throughout the entire year. When you’re involved in student government, you are representative of your students; you are the voice of student opinion.

And I think it’s important that you don’t just hear their opinion for two weeks and that we get it throughout the entire time. We will definitely be talking in classrooms, to organizations, staying in contact throughout the entire year.

TC: How is your party’s platform unique?

I think what sets our party apart is if you look at who’s in our party. The one thing we really wanted to push for when it came to diversity is: When you’re in student government, you’re representing the entire student body. And how do you accurately represent the student body? When your representatives represent the student body in an accurate way.

So what I mean by that is, when it comes to having diversity in gender, sexuality, race, religion, you have all those things in proportion to the University’s demographics. What you also need to have is commuter and housing ratios: 25 percent of students live on campus, but if you look at our SGA (candidates), it’s definitely higher.

I’d say half of them or more than that live on campus. So that was the main thing we were focusing on when building our team. We want to paint a picture that we accurately represent the University demographics. And that’s why 80 percent of our team are commuters, so that we can bring in concerns from commuter students and low-income students who have been missing for a long time.

People misunderstand that there’s a big difference: When it comes to SGA, you don’t just listen to the University and the University administrations — you are the voice of the students. And if they’re telling you they want lower student fees or they want you to advocate for lower tuition, you do that. And that’s the duty we have in our campaign, if we got elected into student government, we would not just go with whatever the administration said.

TC: If elected, what is your first priority going to be?

Our first priority is putting our platform into effect. The first thing I want to do is reach out to people who have worked with student government in the past and talk to them about how we can put our platform into effect. For example, making sure we fix Get Involved — that’s something students always complain about, and it’s something that’s within our ability under our accessibility platform. The interface is absolutely horrible, out of date, if you go on there and you email a club or you email, chances are, it won’t be accurate. So we want to make sure we’re fixing Get Involved and fixing the Financial Aid Department.

Making sure we keep advocating to the administration, because we’ve heard so many problems from so many students that say that at the Financial Aid Department, it’s really tough to even talk to a representative, and getting the detailed tuition plan. And we want to form a commuter committee, because SGA doesn’t have one right now. That way we can work with the commuter office to find out what are commuters’ problems because that is the majority of the students.

TC: Why do you want to be the president of SGA?

I believe that the team we’ve built is phenomenal. The amount of people in there with professional experience and the experience in organizations are fundamentally good people. And I know when we get in office, we can accurately represent the student body.

Robert Comer

The Cougar: What sets you apart from the other presidential candidates?

I think what sets me and my vice president apart is our student happiness and student fun-centered approach to this election. I think that through us looking to make students happy with memes and humor, and more memes, we are really in touch with what students want.

TC: What is your administration going to do differently from the last one?

We are going to have more fun, the students are going to have more fun and we are going to create a framework which makes the executive branch more of an open branch so that we don’t turn away anyone who wants to participate. We will structure it so that anyone who walks in and can’t be a senator can come in and be accommodated to work on initiatives that are going on in the University.

TC: How is your party’s platform unique?

Our party’s platform is unique because it is a combination of both practical initiatives and also dreams, because if you don’t have a dream, how will you make a dream come true?

TC: If elected, what will be your first priority?

My first priority will be to make it illegal to wear UT and A&M shirts on campus. I have other priorities as well, but this is my first priority.

TC: Why do you want to be president of SGA?

I want to be president if the students want me to be president. I’m giving them the option, and they will decide whether or not I want to be president because I only want what the students want.

Winni Zhang

The Cougar: What sets you apart from the other presidential candidates?

Experience. Every single presidential candidate has been given the opportunity to work in the executive branch this year, but only Robert and I have truly put in the dedication to work on projects for the student body. This year, I have been working all year as Deputy Chief of Staff on multiple projects (mental health, free pads/tampons, etc.), and I was also involved in multiple other big projects. This gives me the experience and the facial recognition with staff/faculty to move projects along. I won’t need a “transition” period to memorize the names of faculty/staff (which usually takes a month or two). I can hit the ground running with my ideas for parking, health services and textbook prices. I also have feasible plans that are ran through administration with approval and are plans that our party has already taken multiple steps towards. The platform ideas are all in action, and we need a student body president who can see implementation through.

TC: What is your administration going to do differently from the last one?

Marketing and Outreach. We need to be transparent and accessible. One thing I’ve done this year is implement a website called YouCanBookMe, which allows students to book meetings with us whenever our calendars are free. This way, they can meet with a representative by simply selecting a time and filling out a short form. However, there is more to be done. We need to be talking to classes, sending out surveys and tabling more often. We can’t just expect students to come to us. As people who serve and represent the student body, we need to go to students. This is something I will focus heavily on, and senators within my party are very passionate about (it).

TC: How is your party’s platform unique?

We are always three steps ahead, and we have concrete plans for each platform. When Spirit RED advocates for providing better health services on campus, we know exactly what we’re talking about because I, along with other individuals in our party, have worked on the issues CAPS has faced and spoken with Dr. Ngo about what CAPS needs. When Spirit RED says we’re going to improve textbook prices, we mean we already have plans/agreements in place for open source textbooks to come to campus and we just need to see implementation through. When Spirit RED says we’ll do something, chances are, we’re already 12 steps ahead of the game.

TC: If elected, what will be your first priority?

My first priority is outreach. If elected, I will be personally visiting classes to ensure that students know that their representatives are available for them. I think it is so important to spread the message about what Student Government can do and just how powerful student voices can be. If this message is spread, we can truly have a “representative” student government, where each person is held accountable for their campaign promises. I think it’s important we are on the ground talking to students, being visible and bringing Student Government to the students. This will be my top priority year-round.

TC: Why do you want to be president of SGA?

Making a difference. I, like many other Cougars, love this campus more than anything in this world. However, there are real changes that need to be made. We are ranked last in the state of Texas for mental health services. Our commuter population misses classes and are late to tests because of parking. Our low-income and middle class students are barely able to afford textbooks because the average price students will pay for textbooks are $655.00/year. This is the reality we live in. As someone who loves this University, I want to fix these problems we have, and I am incredibly passionate about these issues. I am not Wonder Woman, but I can promise you this much: I will make a positive difference, and this is why I’m running.

Jordyn Chaffold

The Cougar: What sets you apart from the other presidential candidates?

I think what sets me apart from them is the other people running; they seem like what you would expect to see out of someone that’s running. Two of them are extremely political — one liberal, one very conservative. I personally don’t have heavy political views. My morals and my intentions for running for student government are not political in any way. They’re 100 percent just to advocate for the students and give back to the University that gave me as much as I have now. Also, my team is full of extremely diverse and different people. We have an unorthodox team. It’s not people you would expect to see in a student government situation. We have RAs, we have people from the Muslim Student Association, we have people who serve on different University committees, but for the most part, we’re not cookie-cutter individuals that are all political science majors who just want to come in and make the government political. We’re creative.

TC: What is your administration going to do differently from the current one?

I feel like most of the times when SGA administrations exist, they campaign to the students and they tell them “we’re gonna bring these two or three huge things and they’re going to happen and that’s why you should vote for us,” and we want to break that mold. That’s why we’re the only party right now that did not drop three things. Instead of offering three things, we want to offer as many things as possible.

There are a lot of things on campus that can be fixed, big and small, and I would rather accomplish 100 small things than not accomplish three big things. Most of the time, they promise things that SGA doesn’t have 100 percent direct control over. I’m promising things I know the student government can do. We’re also choosing to reach out directly to the students and ask them what they want to see, rather than tell them what they want to see. I’ve talked to students all over. Some told me they don’t like the amount of microwaves in the student center — that’s a plausible thing to fix, and it’s a huge issue. There’s 22,000 people that come through this building, yet there are only three microwaves. I don’t want people to think that we’re not trying to tackle huge issues.

Parking is always going to be an issue, and we will work toward it. We’re going to work on parking, we’re going to work on putting the right people on FSAC so we can have better representation for our food and putting the right people on SFAC so we can have better representation for our student fees. We’re not saying forget the big points, we’re saying “these are the things we know we can do while we’re working on the big points.”

TC: How is your party’s platform unique?

In my opinion, to innovate means that something was a certain way before, it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad, but something was a certain way before and I see that I can efficiently improve upon it. Innovation is to improve upon something that already existed, that’s my personal definition. We’re looking to do all of this stuff in unique ways, that I don’t feel like the other candidates would be capable of doing.

As normal as it seems to see an elected official in a suit and tie, at the end of the day, we’re all students and it’s a lot easier to approach a student who’s not wearing a suit and tie than one who is. I’ve talked to a lot of students who told me they’re afraid to go into the student government office. Not like an actual fear, but they’re intimidated because everyone in there is serious; it’s the government, they’re not into politics. That’s an issue for me because the student government isn’t politics and it shouldn’t be politics. It used to be called the student association, because it’s supposed to be for the students and by the students. Every student at the University of Houston is considered a member of SGA, and I feel like they should be able to feel at home and comfortable going in there. I feel like right now, they’re not providing that and I feel like in the future, they won’t provide it.

Part of my decision to run for president obviously was creating lots of ideas and some of those ideas I’ve come out in public and said, some of them I haven’t. I have a spreadsheet with hundreds of ideas I have that I think could improve the school. People don’t feel welcome in SGA, people don’t really know their elected officials. I want the students to feel comfortable knowing who I am. I want there to be a direct line of communication between the students and me. If you’re going to be a transparent president who represents 44,000 people, I feel like you should always be there, 24/7. We want to bring fun out, but not fun in an unprofessional way.

TC: If elected, what will be your first priority?

We’re doing something pretty unique here. FDR is one of my favorite presidents, and he’s the one who did the New Deal. Something I’m gonna talk about next week is going to be the UH New Deal. It’s gonna be things that I want to do before school is out. The first day in office is April 1, the last day of school is around May 15.

Our biggest priorities are, first of all, transparency. So right out the gate, first day in office, we’re going to have something called Shasta Chats or Fireside Chats where we have one to two minute videos biweekly or once a month where SGA updates the students on what’s going on. Right now, if students want to know what’s going on, they have to walk into that office or look at the meeting minutes for the last Senate meeting.

And personally, the Senate meetings — I’m not going to say they’re boring — but they’re three hours, and a regular student doesn’t want to sit there for three hours just to find out what’s going on. They also don’t want to have to sift through confusing professional documents to figure out what’s going on. So condense everything in the meeting minutes into a one to two minute video to let the students know what’s going on. We’re also going to start putting out newsletters biweekly from the PR department so that all the students at the University of Houston can know what’s happening without having to go seek the information on their own. We’re going to establish better relationships will all the fee-funded organizations.

Right now, I know for a fact that I’m good friends with everyone in MVP, good friends with Frontier Fiesta, good friends with SPB, CEO. But I want them to be good personal and professional relationships. I want SGA to have collaborative events with these organizations. I want to see if we can do a trial run for the game nights. I want to do that on the weekends because there’s not a whole lot of things going on on the weekend. We want to do that in the first month. All these things, they sound like fun, but they’re also situations where you’re forging relationships with fee-funded organizations that have things that you don’t. I feel like in the past, SGA’s presence hasn’t been there. In my administration, we’d make sure that’s something we would do.

TC: Why do you want to be SGA president?

I came here around this time three years ago, to an event called Cougar Connection. It was an event that they invited all the black students who were prospects at UH to come to. It was all black faculty and black staff there. I hadn’t made up my mind if I wanted to come to this school or not. I had about four schools on my radar and I didn’t want to stay in Houston because I’m from Houston. I made up my mind that night.

There was a guy there, his name was Cedric Bandoh and he was the current SGA president. I told myself I wanted to be him, and so be him I did. I had experience in student government because in middle school, I was running for vice president of the student council. In high school, I ran for president two years in a row and I always knew that whatever school I went to, I wanted to run for student government because I have good ideas. I feel like I’m a good leader.

I feel like I have the relationships with necessary people to be successful not only with administration, but also to forge relationships with the presidents of RSOs and forge relationships with the presidents and directors of fee-funded organizations as well. Cedric made me make up my mind that I wanted to come here. He’s also who made up my mind to make me want to do this.

 

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