c/o Sam Hilton, Features Editor

c/o Sam Hilton, Features Editor

On a Sunday evening in early April, as I hurried from Usdan, where I had quickly scarfed down some pasta after The Argus’ weekly meeting, I found myself a seat in Boger 114. I cover the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) for The Argus and am supposed to go to every one of their 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. General Assembly (GA) meetings—although sometimes, admittedly, I simply skim the minutes instead of attending.

At this meeting in particular, the Executive Board of the Wesleyan University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was set to speak to the WSA about their “One Faculty, Shared Governance!” campaign, as well as their general mission and vision for the future. Yet, as WSA Chief of Staff Ava Petillo ’25 took attendance, it became apparent that the meeting could not be officially called to order.

The WSA bylaws stipulate that the attendance of two-thirds of all WSA senators constitutes a quorum (the minimum number needed to hold an official GA meeting) and on this day, that number was not met. So, while the AAUP did give a presentation to the assembly, no minutes could be taken, no votes could be held, and in an official capacity, no meeting happened. The two resolutions that the WSA was supposed to consider that week were pushed to the next GA meeting.

“I think the main thing that has been frustrating is how much [low attendance] has impeded the ability to do work,” WSA Senator Ruby Clarke ’24 said. “Like the time that the AAUP were there and we didn’t meet quorum, that’s fucking embarrassing.”

This wasn’t the only instance of excessive absence from the assembly this year. The WSA has not seen a single GA meeting with full attendance and has failed to meet quorum three times this academic year—twice in Spring 2023, once in Fall 2022. For two of these meetings, the WSA had invited a guest presenter: the AAUP in the spring and President Michael Roth ’78 in the fall.

“Omfgggg it’s not quorum,” Clarke texted me on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. “But Roth is still coming. 19 [people are here], but 30 people said they’d be here lmfao.”

The other time the WSA didn’t meet quorum was Super Bowl Sunday, perhaps a slightly more understandable cancellation. Still, with resolutions piling up and presenters speaking to a half-empty room, one wonders what could be causing this lack of motivation and rise in burnout.

“Senators are having multiple meetings a week, and then doing individual work, emails, individual meetings with people, working with their committee or subcommittee,” Petillo said. “And then when you get to the end of the week, on Sunday nights, when we have a potential three-hour-long meeting at 6 p.m., it can be a little daunting. By that time, you’re falling behind on work and you’re exhausted, and I think that definitely contributes to low attendance and not meeting quorum.”

Clarke noted that her WSA work week can range from six hours on the low end to 13 hours on the high end, a range that varies across committees. WSA Senator Paul Quach ’26, who sits on the Student Life Committee with Clarke, spoke of the meetings, subcommittees, and projects he is constantly dealing with.

“Honestly, it’s a lot,” Quach said. “I feel like my routine…fluctuates, because some meetings are biweekly. Mostly, it’s three or four meetings every week currently, because I facilitate the Dining Committee, I also facilitate [the] Facilities Advisory Subcommittee, I sit on the Undergraduate Residential Life Committee and on the Student Judicial Process Committee. Doing all that is a lot, because I’m attending the meetings but I’m also facilitating, which means creating the agenda, sending emails to the administrators trying to schedule everything, which is very difficult.”

Students who sit on the WSA’s auxiliary committees such as the First-Generation, Low-Income (FGLI) Advisory Board reported feeling similar burnout. WSA Student Budget Committee Vice-Chair and FGLI Advisory Board Financial Manager Briana Rodriguez Castillo ’23, when asked if she ever felt burnt out by her work on either, emphatically replied, “Absolutely!”

“When it comes to being on the [FGLI Advisory] Board, I feel like a lot of the burnout comes from the emotional energy that goes into it,” Rodriguez Castillo said. “With the board…we are always telling the administrators what we need as an FGLI community, and then [they tell] us why we can’t have it or why they don’t have the money or just basically [give] us excuses. And you know, eventually, you get tired of telling people what you need and them not being responsive.”

This burnout, however, doesn’t just lead to a lack of attendance. Since the start of the year, the WSA has seen six resignations and has had to appoint seven half-term senators to fill empty seats. This level of turnover—exceeding one-sixth of the entire assembly—is a testament to the type of work that the WSA assigns to its senators. One of these six resignations was Heather Cassell ’24, former Chair of the Equity and Inclusion committee. 

Cassell started on the WSA in Fall 2021 and focused her first year as a senator on getting the University to create language and policies around housing insecurity, culminating in a comprehensive overhaul of communications around how the Office of Residential Life accommodates housing-insecure students. This past fall, Cassell was chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee (EIC) and resigned towards the end of the semester.

“I was prioritizing WSA over my health and my schoolwork, and I wasn’t getting paid enough to do that,” Cassell said. “So I think it could’ve been a combination of my social positionality as a low-income student [the fact that] I was only on the WSA for the express purpose of the housing insecurity work that I was doing…. After that, when it was EIC more broadly, I just felt like it didn’t have to be me anymore—it could’ve been anybody else. Basically, I wasn’t paid enough for the things that I was doing. I realized that my energy would be better spent elsewhere in something that gave me energy to do it and gave me money to do it.”

The burnout that Cassell felt is common among former and current WSA senators. The assembly and its committees exist in a strange mid-ground between administration and student body, which can be frustrating when nobody understands the job other than your fellow senators, according to Cassell.

“It’s just a weird, liminal space,” Cassell said. “And the other thing that made it different was you really do feel like you’re trying to soak up as much information as you can from the people who were doing it longer, or the people who are in older class years than you, and then hold that in mind while thinking about what you want Wesleyan to become, and then acting in a way that allows that to happen. So then, you have this existential responsibility, and then nobody understands what your job is, and then you’re paid very little. It’s not a fun combo.”

In addition, Cassell emphasized that a good deal of strain is put on some of the most passionate senators or would-be senators, as they must represent interests of not only their peers and constituents, but also themselves.

“The people who are drawn to work in making the University more equitable are often the ones who it is not equitable for, and holding that tension is exhausting,” Cassell said. “Speaking from my position, I’m a white, low-income student, but there is a multiplicity of other things that I can’t really speak on that are particularly difficult for other students.”

For WSA Community Committee (CoCo) Chair Valerie Lee ’24, working on the WSA was often tedious, repetitive, and frustrating. As CoCo chair, Lee has overseen critical events such as Pass the Torch/Light the Torch, the Student Involvement Fair, and Leadership Lunches and has dealt with student group registration, management, and support. Now, after a long tenure as chair, Lee is ready to take a step back and is not running for re-election to the WSA for the fall.

“The easiest thing is that I would like my free Sundays back,” Lee said. “I’ve never had free Sundays, essentially, because freshman year, I wasn’t on campus, and then sophomore year, I joined [the WSA], and then I’m here now. So I’ve never had a free Sunday on campus at Wesleyan. I would like that experience in my senior year. And I feel like the most hard and taxing part is not internalizing other people’s quote-unquote failure as my own.”

Lee elaborated that a massive amount of the challenge for her was the struggle of communicating with the student body. Despite not being responsible for making sure everyone on campus understands everything they need to, Lee emphasized this still weighed heavily on her.

“I feel like, since we’re talking about burnout, the worst feeling is when your acquaintance just casually says to you, ‘Oh, but what does the WSA do?’” Lee said. “Especially if that person is the kind that doesn’t read their email and still does not hold themselves accountable to anything. And I am, on the other hand, the kind of person who would internalize their failure to do certain things. And that is the worst feeling. It is frustration with myself. There is also a lot of frustration with people like that.”

In addition to having free Sunday evenings and spending less time sending unnecessary emails, Lee is looking forward to new opportunities in the coming academic year. She’s hoping to be a Senior Admissions Intern, continue working at Pi Cafe, and enjoy her last year on campus. Lee hopes that WSA senators who continue will feel the benefits of the new increased compensation, as the Leadership Board (LB) is more prepared to enforce attendance and task management within their committees. Regardless, Lee noted that the role of a WSA senator is challenging no matter what, and students should be aware of that before they jump in.

“I personally think it’s gonna get a little better, and people are going to be more motivated,” Lee said. “But it is still a taxing job. It’s not a job where you’ll sit at a desk and get paid. And it’s not an interest-based student organization. There’s still work to it. And sometimes it’s unpalatable, but that’s what one has signed up for when they decide to run.”

Cassell now works with the Oddfellows Playhouse Maplewood Neighborhood Troupe and is starting her thesis in preparation for a winter graduation. At peace with her resignation, Cassell remained optimistic that passionate, qualified people picked up the mantle she left behind.

“I’m really thankful to not have to worry about WSA stuff, but the thing about student government is that it’s so institutional that I kinda don’t have to worry about it still existing,” Cassell said. “It it will continue to exist. It’s not my sole responsibility. It was only my responsibility to hold onto it for the amount of time that I held onto it.”

As the WSA looks ahead, it faces an uncertain future in Fall 2023. A number of students who currently sit on the LB—made up of the chairs of the WSA’s five committees, the President, Vice President, and Chief of Staff—are going abroad. Clarke expects most, if not all, of the WSA’s internal elections for committee chairs to be competitive this year, which is not usually the case.

“There’s not a clear, decisive person who is the most eligible [to be chair] because that person will not be on campus,” Clarke said. “So I think that that’s honestly a good opportunity to give more underclassmen the chance to take charge and direction of the WSA, which I think is a good thing.”

Something that multiple sitting senators hoped to see improved in the fall was the sense of community within GA. As WSA looks to restructure itself, this emphasis on bonding and finding support systems within the assembly has been a priority.

“It’s just a lot of work that…people don’t know about [when they run],” Quach said. “And then when people drop, the work gets pushed onto another person, and that creates a cycle. And I think that’s why the conversation around restructuring is really important. Building community, getting to know each other…is very important. We’re thinking about…ways we can just prioritize the mental health of everyone.”

Clarke echoed this need to put community bonding high on the to-do list, emphasizing that the intra-committee friendships they’ve developed help make the sometimes-tedious GA meetings much more bearable.

“I can’t speak to what other committees have been doing, but I think having [a] committee community makes going to GA fun, because we’ll all sit together and laugh at the same jokes—we have inside jokes and stuff like that,” Clarke said. “So I think that has been really important in making people want to come to the Sunday GA, which are a little bit more laborious.”

A number of other measures have been proposed as senators brainstorm how to reshape the assembly, including dividing the position of Chief of Staff into two roles, moving internal elections to a few weeks after the semester starts to allow the GA to bond more effectively, and rethinking how to give the student body more access to the WSA.

The WSA has already passed one major reform effort, however, as the College Body voted this spring to ratify Amendment 6.44: “Increasing WSA Senator Compensation,” which provides each WSA senator with $850 in compensation per semester and members of LB with $1300.

“People shouldn’t have stress about, ‘Oh, I need to do WSA work that I care about, but also finding money to be able to be on campus because Wesleyan is expensive,’” Quach said. “People have to work two, three jobs, and especially if you’re an FGLI kid, you have to do so much extra work for this…. It also just allows us to be held more accountable and not have to worry about the money aspect.”

This was paired with a separate measure, Amendment 7.44: “Compensating the First Generation Low Income Advisory Board,” guaranteeing members of the FGLI Advisory Board 33% of their work-study funds as compensation for their work on the board.

“For the FGLI Advisory Board, in particular, because we are low-income, it really does help that we get paid now through this passed resolution,” Rodriguez Castillo said. “A lot of our time gets taken up already by work-study and having to take on multiple jobs, and the hope is that we’d be able to drop one and be more focused on the board because we get paid.”

As the WSA works to eliminate the need for students to choose between holding a job and sitting on the GA, it also has been considering what that should mean for the regulations that senators are expected to follow. In the assembly’s annual process of constitutional review (ConReview), during which senators sit down to correct outdated or superfluous parts of the WSA’s constitution and bylaws, the amendment’s sponsors put forward a reform aimed at targeting flaky attendance.

“We got rid of [the difference between] excused versus unexcused absences and made a strict limit for how many times you can be absent because we want to keep senators more accountable, especially if we’re getting paid a higher stipend,” Petillo said. “And we think that with this year’s burnout and attendance rates, we want to have a stronger presence in GAs going forward… We definitely have made serious edits to our bylaws that can correct the low attendance rates from this year.”

This year, enough candidates are running that the assembly will not have empty seats in the fall, but it is not a high enough number to make any of the elections competitive. In fact, for the class of 2025, only one senator is seeking re-election this spring, although there are a number of senators whose terms don’t expire until the end of the fall.

“I do think that it speaks to lower participation as you go through your college experience,” Petillo said. “You have a bunch of super, super excited and active freshmen, but then it kind of wanes off as you get into the junior and senior classes. As you get busier with school, you’re not able to really sustain the amount of work that WSA requires of you. And it can be really difficult, especially for chairs, who typically are upperclassmen. Speaking of the chairs who are currently working this year, they are so great in taking some work from their committee members, and helping to alleviate that burden when they have a busy week or need to take a mental health week or whatever it may be. But somebody needs to get that work done.”

Ask any Wesleyan student what they think of the WSA and you’ll get dramatically different answers. It’s a hulking institutional bureaucracy, a glorified HOA, and a pain in the ass to some. It’s a single-point venue for change, a pivotal advocate for student needs, and a life-saving supporter of student life for others. Whatever you think of it, the WSA is made up of real people trying to make a difference and sometimes getting steamrolled by their own job.

As the student body votes on next year’s GA, it’ll be interesting to see how these 36 senators, hell-bent on making our school a better place, find their footing in an ever-changing institution. We can only hope they find it well.

Sam Hilton can be reached at shilton@wesleyan.edu.

Comments are closed