‘A golden state of change’: ASSU senators reflect on time spent in office, share hopes for the future

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When Senator Mia Bahr ’22 arrived at Stanford as a wide-eyed frosh, she was frustrated by problems present on campus, most notably the alarming rates of sexual violence on campus and what she saw as a reluctance from administrators to address it. Stepping into her first term as a member of the Undergraduate Senate, Bahr made it her primary goal to reduce sexual violence on Stanford’s campus.

Now with two years in the Senate under her belt and some hefty legislative accomplishments to boot, she’s not planning to run again for the job, joining nine senators for whom this year is their last.

Four in total spoke with The Daily about their time in the institution. Though change is not easy, all four said they had accomplishments from their time in office that they are proud of, and many alluded to being hopeful for the future of the student government.

For Bahr’s part, she said she found her time in office to be worthwhile. One of her proudest accomplishments was drafting a resolution, which she said was “a symbolic commitment to change” that “opened campus conversation and challenged Greek leaders to hold themselves accountable.” Her resolution was signed by every Greek chapter on campus during the 2019-20 academic year.

As a survivor herself, Bahr felt empowered through creating this resolution: “Writing about what went wrong in my case, hearing survivor testimonials, actually sitting down and listening to people touched by sexual violence was profoundly impactful,” she said. “That by far is what I’m most proud of.”

Campus survivor advocates declined to comment on the resolution.

Bahr also credited her colleague Jonathan Lipman ’21 for the work he did in battling sexual violence on campus. Lipman himself said that his work on sexual and relationship violence prevention was some of the most important he did as a senator.

For instance, Lipman wrote a report to the administration about what the University should be better at doing in order to address and prevent cases of relationship violence. He credits the report for prompting the University to implement a number of new initiatives.

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda confirmed that the University has used Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) reports to make administrative changes to sexual harassment and violence prevention. Some of the changes included increasing legal aid for students going through sexual violence investigations, improving training for resident assistants on new Title IX procedures and developing an infographic detailing the investigation and hearing steps of the new procedures.

Campus survivor advocates declined to comment on Lipman’s track record.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lipman also spearheaded the initiative to change the grading policy for the 2020-21 school year to allow credit or no credit grading to count towards WAYS and major requirements. 

Senators said they initially ran for office for a variety of reasons, spanning parental influence to experiencing institutional challenges themselves. Princess Vongchanh ’23, who uses they/them pronouns, said they ran because of the “struggles and celebrations” they faced due to their identity and saw how many of their peers had the same experiences “because of the way higher education is shaped.”

“It was clear from the start that, as a predominantly white institution which caters to the needs of high-wealth families, Stanford cannot be the place we need it to be unless we play active roles in evolving it. I wanted a hands-on role to see this change through,” Vongchanh said.

To foster this hands-on involvement, Vongchanh said that they helped translate institutional structures for the greater Stanford community, making it easier for individual students and student groups to enact change. 

Vongchanh did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how they translated institutional structures.

Lenny Defoe ’21, who campaigned with Vongchanh as part of the People’s Caucus, used his time in office to revamp the annual grant funding process and create centralized channels of communication for campus advocacy.

As appropriations chair, DeFoe oversaw funding for all student organizations on campus. He said he helped establish a formal structure for reviewing annual grants, which included having all grants be reviewed in three rounds and creating a checklist of things to review for each grant. Defoe said he was proud of the work he did, especially in light of the COVID-related budget cuts that he faced.

Vongchanh and Lipman both expressed frustration with the pandemic’s effects on their time as senators. During the pandemic, Vongchanh said it was difficult to sustain communication with different groups due to their not being together on campus.

Vongchanh also said Stanford’s priorities on certain issues shifted in response to the pandemic, making it difficult to sustain work on evolving issues, such as advocacy for undocumented students. As for Lipman, he said that federal, state and county regulations made it difficult to ensure that faculty consistently recorded their Zoom lectures for international students during the pandemic.

Defoe and Lipman will both be graduating this year, making them ineligible to run again. Vongchanh and Bahr both chose not to run again, citing burnout as their key reason, with Bahr adding that she has been involved in advocacy her entire life and felt that she could make a greater impact outside of the Senate.

When the senators were asked about what they hope the future of the ASSU looks like, the senators all expressed positive outlooks.

“I hope being a part of the ASSU feels liberating. I hope we continue building institutional knowledge and effectively sharing methods of change so that newer members of the ASSU do not face the same challenges we do,” Vongchanh said. “I hope the student government feels good and there are clear reasons why.”

In addition to sharing this positive outlook, Defoe and Bahr both expressed hope for the ASSU to become a better version of what it currently is. According to Bahr, the ASSU is in “a golden state of change” because she sees a ton of people willing to put in the work to make the ASSU and the University at large better.

Defoe said he hopes that the right people get elected to office. That way, people govern as not only role models to other senators, but will also “set the precedent for how to conduct yourself in a body, where you’re representing more than just yourself.” Defoe views such changes as necessary to preserving the legacy of the ASSU as a fair and representative governing body.

“That’s what the students deserve,” he said.

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Carolyn Stein is a contributing writer from Los Angeles, California. She is pursuing coursework in psychology, East Asian studies and comparative literature. On campus, you can find her making loud noises with the LSJUMB. Contact her at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.