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Saturday, August 18, 2018

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Zhang’s tenure as president ends, but she’s just getting started


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In the year since Winni Zhang assumed her role as president of the Student Government Association, she has advocated for change in areas throughout campus. Despite her tenure coming to an end this week, Zhang said she, and her efforts, aren’t going anywhere. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

Outgoing Student Government Association President Winni Zhang will leave her post as head of the 54th Administration this week in much the same way as she entered her tenure — optimistic and determined, with her eyes set on the future.

Cameron Barrett’s administration will take over April 4, and with Zhang’s time in SGA behind her, she looks back on her achievements for the students she served and the relationships she cultivated over the past year in office.

“Our students are so incredible,” Zhang said. “(During my time), I felt a sense of pride in the (UH) community as a whole.”

Zhang said she doesn’t feel as though any single issue she’s worked on in the past year bears more importance than any other. She’s proud of the role she played in mental health advocacy and expanding mental health services on campus through improvements to CAPS.

Making strides

In hindsight, Zhang said it’s easy to identify what she could have done differently, but she feels accomplished in that her administration was able to address all of its main and secondary initiatives.

Time was an ever-present factor in limiting what she could do, but she wishes only that she was able to start campus-wide conversations on sexual assault sooner.

Former SGA President Shane Smith said Zhang’s tenure is marked with accomplishments. He believes Zhang made many strides, especially in her work surrounding mental health and sexual assault.

Smith is sympathetic to Zhang’s role as the face of the organization and said much of what the president does is behind the scenes with little recognition.

He said her most lasting impact will be the role she played in making UH the director school of the Texas Student Government Coalition, which oversees all the student governments in the state and helps lobby state legislators.

Zhang is also on the Steering Committee for the National Campus Leadership Council and was named the 2017 Conference of Student Government Association Outstanding Student Government Leader of the Year for her work.

“She’s put her life into (student government),” Smith said, “and she has a lot to show for it.”

Speaker of the Senate Chelsea Cheung said this past year suffered from a lack of continuity because nearly half of the Senate left SGA at some point, but she doesn’t fault any one person for those difficulties.

She said she supported Zhang taking a hands-off approach when it came to balancing the needs of the presidency and the Senate because as speaker, she felt called to that role.

Cheung said Zhang and her administration will be remembered for being proactive in pushing the University forward on pressing national and social issues.

“(She was) perceptive to a lot of national problems, such as climate issues, sexual assault and the DACA resolution,” Cheung said. “(She dealt) with issues that were not just University issues, but were broader and definitely impacted and affected University students.”

Changing her perspective

Zhang said her view of the presidency has radically changed since her time as a freshman senator. Back then, she said, she believed something was fundamentally wrong if the president and Senate disagreed on certain issues.

Now, she intimately understands that the office of the president “comes with a certain sense of opposition.” But she said that divide is necessary for cooperation, and she laments that some members of the organization may have taken cues from the political climate in Washington and felt they had to challenge her for appearance’s sake.

Zhang said there are many moments that stand out from her time in the organization. As an example, she points to an interaction she had with a student as deputy chief of staff for the 53rd Administration.

She said after meeting with the student and hearing about the challenges they had with CAPS, she had to act to make mental health services more accessible. After creating a mental health task force, Zhang said hearing stories of the struggle students faced with mental health motivated her in the push to expand services.

But Zhang was also inspired by student triumphs. When Hurricane Harvey left the city in turmoil, she watched students step up to become community leaders and volunteers.

Moving forward

Hardworking is the word Smith said he would use to describe Zhang. When spending time with Zhang, he said, it’s easy to see her work ethic shine through in the time and passion she puts into the things she cares about.

He said the obligations of the presidency take away from the energy that each office holder can put into their personal passions, so he thinks losing the election for the 55th Administration will free Zhang up to pursue the causes she cares about most.

In the future, Smith said, he sees Zhang continuing to be a tireless advocate for her community and the people around her.

He knows Zhang’s perspective firsthand — looking at the world and considering the best way to help — and he believes that in the future, in whatever career she pursues, she will be a dedicated vehicle for change.

Stepping away from office, Zhang said there’s naturally a feeling of relief because the president has to juggle so many responsibilities. She said effective past presidents had to make personal sacrifices, which takes a toll.

She joked that she can’t remember having so much free time, but said in the weeks to come, she’ll remain focused on pushing for further change — such as continuing the fight for mental health advocacy in higher education and expanding sexual assault awareness on campus.

“I don’t think that fire or energy will be dying in me any time soon,” she said.

Michael Slaten contributed reporting.

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