For a little more than a century, UT’s Student Government Association has existed to serve and represent the student body. The organization has done so through its legislative senate, Student Services branches dedicated to engagement and programs geared toward getting students involved with campus life.
However, amid the pandemic, the ability to safely garner up a crowd in orange apparel on Ped. Walkway has diminished. The range of available programming for in-person events has significantly shrunk, although the current times have created opportunities for new virtual events, which have the power to engage students in both online and in-person school, in Knoxville and on the other side of the country.
Now, SGA is gearing up for the school year and thinking creatively about how best to be a support system for students. The organization’s leaders have spent the summer in high gear, preparing for the fall and adjusting their previous plans, Student Services Director Emma Kate Hall explained.
“We are certainly still full steam ahead. We have not put on the brakes by any means, but we are redefining how we continue to serve students and amplify student voices when it’s not a matter of catching them on Ped. Walkway anymore,” Hall said. “It’s a matter of, some of them are going to be in California and how do you still represent and work for and serve the students who are at home as well as you’re serving the students who are socially distanced away from you but at least still in Knoxville.”
This year, President Karmen Jones plans to utilize SGA’s platform to spread the word about health regulations and serve as an example for proper safety precautions.
“We just have to make sure that we are relaying all of the new regulations, all the new guidelines, and that we are making wearing masks and incorporating social distancing normal for our students,” Jones said. “I would say my concern would be that everyone might not understand the notion that Vols do help Vols, and by being a Vol that is helpful that means wearing your mask and making sure that you’re taking care of yourself and you’re taking care of your roommates.”
For one, SGA is currently planning to hold its personal meetings virtually. Senate and First Year Council, both of which are directed by Vice President Raj Patel, will be holding virtual meetings. Additionally, the newly-created general body branch, which was added to SGA in an attempt to include more students in the group’s workings, will begin online as well. The new branch is geared toward networking with other students, engaging in conversations with administrators and meeting with senators.
As for programming, SGA will be utilizing socially distanced programming alongside virtual programming. For example, the group will be leading a socially distanced walk to World’s Fair Park during Welcome Week, with the aim of showing students a safe, outdoor area that can be accessed within walking distance of campus.
The organization is also toting the idea of hosting an outdoor screening of the Vols’ 1998 championship football game, in lieu of the unlikelihood of a normal season in Neyland Stadium.
“Any semblance of normalcy that we can provide, even if that’s watching a football game far apart in the Student Union courtyard and not a live football game in Neyland, that’s still an aspect of it’s fall, I’m at school, life is good, hopefully,” Hall said.
SGA is also honing their focus in on what students are most in need of at present times. With the current economic crisis, many students may be struggling financially or experiencing food insecurity. SGA plans to address these issues, explained Jones.
“It think we're in a perfect time to provide resources during this pandemic. and if that looks like taking a look at housing or taking a look at what resources we can provide for food insecurity, things like that, that’s what I'm mainly most excited about,” Jones said. “That's why we got elected, so we're just going to keep doing what we’re doing and that means providing resources for students.”
The group plans to support students in smaller ways as well, perhaps by handing out swag in the form of webcam covers and contactless door openers, an effort that Treasurer Cody Ramangkoun has headed. In the age of online school and a global health crisis, these small items could become extremely useful to students.
“The pandemic …. has made me shift my perspective a lot,” Hall said. “Students obviously do want to feel in touch with the Volunteer spirit and school pride and all those things, but there’s a lot that we can do that’s just very practical, so how do we practically serve students, too?”
Ultimately, Jones emphasized SGA’s commitment to ensuring that the fall semester is still a meaningful one for the Volunteer community.
“We just have to ensure students that a Volunteer experience is still going to happen,” Jones said. “That's something that we’re all so dedicated to. This Volunteer experience will not look the same as it has in previous years, but a Volunteer experience is still happening, and we're open to new ideas on how to supply that. So if there’s anything that we can do to make this experience happen for students, we are completely open and down to talk with students and to be a resource for students.”