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The 2020 Student Government Association election season kicked off with the candidate debate on Thursday evening, April 2. Unlike previous debates, this year’s debate occurred over Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic. Candidates for student body president, vice president, student services director and executive treasurer debated in the two-hour long event.

Representatives from three campaigns — Change, Promise and We Hear You UT — tuned in from their homes and debated for each of the four positions in four rounds of 30 minute debates.

The debate wasn’t open to the general public because of concerns about the Zoom system becoming overloaded, but a recording of the event was posted the following day and can be viewed here.

Although there were a few technical difficulties amid muted microphones and lagging video times, overall, the debate proceeded smoothly.

Student Body President

The debate’s first round occurred between candidates for student body president: from Change, junior studying English Karmen Jones, from Promise, sophomore studying political science Walker Hoover and from We Hear You UT, junior studying anthropology Nikki Hernandez.

Questions for the debate were fielded from Election Commissioner Nicole Painter. She inquired about many subjects including the candidates’ style of management, plans for student engagement and ability to coordinate with state legislature. 

Each candidate was allotted a one minute rebuttal during the questioning period that followed.

In her opening statement, Jones explained her campaign’s emphasis on bringing about positive change on campus.

“The Change campaign is committed to three important pillars. The first one is compassion, the second one is collaboration and the third one is community. I count it as a privilege to be constantly involved with administration and being invited into those spaces, but I do recognize that not all Volunteers have been invited into those conversations. That’s why it is the goal of the Change campaign, and mine, to make sure that we bring complete student representation to the highest level of the university’s priorities,” Jones said.

Next was Hoover who emphasized student engagement as one of his campaign’s most important goals for their administration. He explained that as a Resident Assistant and member of Sigma Nu fraternity, he has experience with students approaching him and explaining that they don’t understand what SGA is and hopes to changes this.

“Through these leadership positions I’ve found that many students come to me looking for advice, looking for answers. ... They would often come to talk to me about financial insecurity, social insecurity, academic insecurity and food insecurity. They would often bring questions to me that I didn’t have the answer to. But, as a student who is ready to be your next student body president, I promise that I will always give students the resources they need to prosper,” Hoover said.

Additionally, Hernandez focused on explaining that her campaign is aiming to represent each and every UT student. As a first generation college student, Hernandez is passionate about ensuring that every student, including those who may have been underrepresented in the past, has a voice on campus and in SGA.

”It’s just by showing that no matter how small their position is in SGA or how big their position is in SGA that they have a voice and they can be heard here in this organization. And that’s why we’re called We Hear You UT because every student should be valued and every student is important,“ Hernandez said.

In response to a question about how candidates would correspond with state legislators, Jones explained that her experience in working with government has prepared her for the task.

“I actually paged for the House of Representatives, and I work with the Shelby County government every summer interning so I understand the culture across Tennessee. A lot of people serving in Nashville are alumni of UT, and we can draw that connection and make more connections through making sure we continue those relationships,” Jones said.

Student Body Vice President

Next, candidates for student body vice president debated during the event’s second round. The candidates included, from Change, junior studying aerospace engineering Raj Patel, from Promise, sophomore studying political science Carly Broady and from We Hear You UT, junior studying American studies Sophia Rhoades. The debate ensued in the same format as that of the presidential candidates.

Because the vice president is charged with residing over the senate, much of this section’s debate consisted of inquiries about what type of changes would be made in SGA’s senate and First-Year Council. 

While discussing how eight at-large seats in the senate body should be allocated, Broady expressed her interest in adding representation from Greek life to the senate and maintaining a seat for a veteran, while Rhoades and Patel discussed adding representatives from Multicultural Student Life, Women’s Coordinating Council and the LGBTQ+ community.

“It’s truly critical that we are ensuring that those eights seats are diverse and are representing underrepresented groups on campus,” Rhoades said.

Patel, who stated that he comes from a diverse background, feels equipped to represent the diverse senatorial body consisting of 60 students.

Rhoades added that as vice president, she would like to aid senators in writing bills and seeing through with legislation that they have passed.

"Legislation shouldn’t just be something that passes and then we don’t see anything come from it," Rhoades said. "I would love to see mental health education at student orientation. That is the bill that I wrote a year ago. I question why nothing has been done with it yet."

In terms of re-organizing First-Year Council, Patel and Broady echoed their wishes about forming FYC into a group that prepares students for leadership.

“Students can take the skills that they learned in first year council forward to be successful not only in senate or student services, but whatever organization they desire, even if it is one that’s not involved in SGA,” Broady said. “I think this has the added benefit of increasing connections to SGA with organizations outside the student government, with the main added goal of making an SGA that is reflective and representative of all students on Rocky Top.”

As a sophomore, Broady is younger than both Rhoades and Patel. However, she explained that this situation will work to SGA’s advantage if she is elected as student body vice president.

“Second semester, I’m not worried about graduation. I’m not worried about where I’m going to get a job or my plans. I am in it, and I’m here, and you know where to find me, and I think that that’s really important in a vice president, is knowing that they're accessible,” Broady said.

In her closing statement, Broady challenged her fellow students to hold her accountable for the promises she made during the debate.

“I have the experience, I have the passion and I have the clear vision needed to implement our polices. You have the power — the power to vote, the power to hold me accountable for the the things that I have said tonight, but most importantly the power to put your faith in someone who is ready to dedicate herself to putting SGA to work,” Broady said.

Executive Treasurer

Next, two candidates debated for the position of executive treasurer: junior studying industrial engineering Cody Ramangkoun from Change and junior studying mechanical engineering Molly Mays from We Hear You UT.

Painter asked the candidates a question about the position itself, which has recently been changed from an appointed to an elected position.

Ramangkoun explained that he thinks this was a positive change, particularly because it puts decision-making back in the hands of the student body.

“I think by changing it from appointed to elected it does add a level of accountability with SGA as a whole, and it can hopefully bring back student voices to the realm of student programming. It also adds an additional layer of trust between the students as well as the administration,” Ramangkoun said.

Mays echoed similar sentiments.

“Having this as an elected position creates a lot more legitimacy to the student government, and not that we’re not already legitimate, but I believe that with having someone that’s elected by the student body we are giving the responsibility back to the students and giving that responsibility especially to one student who is elected to that position,” Mays said.

As was discussed in other moments in the debate, Painter asked the candidates a question about student programming funding. Ramangkoun expressed his idea for a fund that would be accessible to organizations across campus.

“One issue that we do have in mind is creating a student campus-wide fundraiser ... doing one that’s campus-wide and allocating that money into a certain pot to pool money for certain students and things in general can definitely alleviate some of that financial insecurity when it comes to student programming and student organizations," Ramangkoun said.

Student Services Director

Finally, from Change, junior studying political science Emma Kate Hall, from Promise, junior studying political science Chris Barnes and from We Hear You UT, junior studying modern foreign languages Gustavo Morrice debated for the position of Student Services Director discussing topics like committees, retention and how each candidate reacts under stress.

Each focused on a different committee they would change or add to the Student Services branch of SGA.

Barnes focused on honing students’ professional development with a committee that would work closely with the Center for Career Development and fraternities.

“Personally I would like to create a professional developmental committee, so I would like to do that to ensure the readiness of UT students when they start preparing for the real world outside of college,” Barnes said. 

New to the SGA election campaign process, Morrice stayed in line with We Hear You UT’s platform of focusing on health and wellness by creating a health and wellness committee, as he highlighted the Student Health Center needs an additional 10 counselors to support students on campus. He also said he’d add an internal affairs committee to help students feel more included in SGA and help with retention rates.

“... One of the things that our campaign really wants to do when it comes to health and wellness is making sure that the students have the resources that they need in the Student Health Center,” Morrice said. 

Hall also focused on both changing the current environment and sustainability committee while bridging the gap between serving students on campus and serving students in Knoxville.

“... What I would want to do is just ensure that while they’re already doing incredible programs like the home and holiday market and sustainability day and things like that,” Hall said. “Just ensuring that as Student Services Director I could help advocate for as many opportunities as possible for that committee to engage with conversation with administrators regarding environmental policy across campus.”

In response to a question about the candidates’ ability to handle high stress situations, Hall shared an anecdote where she did just that when a third party company pulled out of an event she was organizing just 30 minutes before the event was scheduled to take place.

“So I think number one, you have to be willing to call an audible and willing to change and know that sometimes you can plan to the best of your ability and that’s what you should do,” Hall said. “But you should be ready to do what you need to do to serve the students in the best way that you can.”

When asked about how they plan to encourage all SGA branches to work together, all three candidates emphasized collaboration.

“I think that this is something we need partnership for. What I mean by partnership is the student services branch working with the senate branch and making sure that everything that we do is in tandem,” Morrice said.

In his closing statement, Barnes discussed his idea of the SSD’s responsibilities and explained that he believes he would be the best person to fill the role.

"The goal is to take a holistic view of the student experience at UT and provide service to continually improve that experience," Barnes said. "It is our responsibility and a privilege to plan and carry out the events that bring awareness to issues facing campus. Filling someone in this position requires someone with a positive attitude, optimism, a good worth ethic and other necessary skills to communicate the things that need to be done in a respective and timely manner."

With that, the 2020 SGA debates concluded.

SGA elections will be held from April 15 to 17, online. More information about specific voting procedures will be released close to the election. All three campaigns can be found on Instagram: @wehearyou_ut, @votepromise2020 and @changeutk.

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