Virtual events, emergency funding and academic communities: ASWC leaders reflect on semester goals

Abby Malzewski, Staff Reporter

As our atypical semester draws to a close, the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) team reflected on the goals they laid out for themselves at the beginning of the semester to support the student body online.

Sneh Chachra, a sophomore politics major from Los Angeles, reported that minimal problems arose during her first semester as ASWC president, despite uncertainty over what role the student government organization would play. She feels like ASWC maneuvered coronavirus-imposed challenges well.

“We did everything that we could have done to provide opportunities for students to engage, provide opportunities for employment, and resources to be able to engage in bettering people’s own communities,” Chachra said.

ASWC encouraged campus engagement through community-wide emails promoting resources and upcoming events sponsored by the organization, such as the collaboration with Whitman Votes and the counseling center to put on a Navigating Uncertainty Workshop. 12 people attended the workshop, which focused on the anxiety that can come from an unpredictable political atmosphere.

Emergency funding was central to ASWC’s agenda to assist and give resources to Whitman students. This semester, emergency funds were given to 15 people and totaled $15,000 in aid.

Shepherd Sitenta, a sophomore anthropology major from Zambia, received money from the ASWC Emergency Fund for food while living off-campus and out of Walla Walla without a job. Sitenta experienced comfort in having this fund to remedy some of the challenges that came with this semester. 

“I think just knowing that there is a resource on campus that can help me and other students going through more challenging things brought a lot of comfort and mental relief to push through the semester,” Sitenta said.

Another outlet for student support created by ASWC this semester were academic communities on Discord channels. 130 students registered with an academic community, which were moderated by about 20 department liaisons. Chachra described that while there was relatively low student engagement, those who did engage with the platform seemed to get something out of it.

“People are understandably less willing to engage in things they are not necessarily obligated to engage in just because online school is so exhausting,” said Chachra. “Every once in a while, you’d get an instance where a first-year asks for help on a problem in their Calc I class and then there were three seniors on a call together helping this first year, which I think is an instance that’s totally unique to the platform.”

Liv Liponis, a junior psychology and philosophy double-major from New Hampshire, took over the role of Chair of Student Outreach for Jeff Mutethia mid-way through the semester. Liponis had previously been working with the Rest as Resistance team, a new addition to the virtual campus focused on amplifying student voices around topics of wellness and social justice.

The Student Outreach committee kept contact with the community virtually by increasing their Instagram presence, collecting student feedback, and holding two virtual tabling sessions per week where students could talk to committee members.

The committee did not put on town halls this semester, though Liponis said the committee is working to update the town hall guidelines for a virtual format. Kazi Joshua, Dean of Students, said town halls were one of the traditional aspects of ASWC he missed most this semester.

“I must also say that I personally missed the ASWC town halls, but understand that during the pandemic it was not possible to conduct them,” Joshua said.

Joshua believed that ASWC was successful in the goals they set this semester and had a list of accomplishments he was proud of ASWC for achieving.

“I do think that they achieved the goals they set out to meet,” Joshua said. “ASWC leaders were able to balance the budget in pandemic conditions, the work of continuing operations of ASWC and the preparations for spring, and the staffing of all ASWC-related committees, such as the Council of Student Affairs.”

Liponis said the main challenge ASWC faced this semester was the uncertainty that required constant adaptation.

“We didn’t know what student engagement with virtual community-building efforts would be like, we didn’t know what student needs would be, and we didn’t know what students would respond well to,” Liponis said. “Looking back, I wish we had started earlier with creative and asynchronous methods of collecting feedback, such as surveys, rather than focusing on trying to translate the regular Student Outreach events, like tabling and town halls, into a virtual space.”

Next semester, Liponis said, the Student Outreach committee plans to engage in more collaboration with the Diversity and Inclusion committee for more frequent feedback surveys.

Chachra shared that all the feedback she has received via forms linked in her email and in ASWC emails have been overwhelmingly positive. She is confident that students know that ASWC is a resource for assistance and support, even during an online semester.

“I think students feel comfortable asking us for what they need, and as shown by the fact that clubs still request for travel and student development funding and plenty of students have reached out for Emergency Fund funding,” Chachra said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job in establishing ourselves as an approachable organization.”

You can reach Sneh Chachra at [email protected] and Liv Liponis at [email protected].