Liu, Gomez on communication, diversity, and how to make UA leadership more fun

With elections for Undergraduate Association (UA) president and vice president ongoing, The Tech sat down with candidates Sophia Liu ’17 and Daysi N. Gomez ’18 to talk about their experience in student government, the challenges they’ve faced, the issues they think are most important, and their plans for the future of the UA. Liu currently serves as vice president of the UA. The pair is running unopposed.

The Tech: Why do you think you are the only ones running?

Sophia Liu: People were asking if I was running, and there was an assumption that people did not want to run if I was running. It’s a mix of that and a mix of, probably, apathy. Also, I think when you do a really good job, not as many people will want to run to change something. So I think a combination of those — apathy, trust in whoever is running, and just not wanting to put up a campaign.

The Tech: What have you learned as UA vice president and as class council vice president that you will bring with you to [the presidency and vice presidency]?

Daysi Gomez: An understanding of the MIT culture, just because of connections [made through class council] that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. I really got to learn about MIT culture.

Liu: [I learned about] why people love MIT and also being willing to go out and solicit opinions on how to do things. I think that when people do not feel like their opinion is heard, or something along those lines, there’s an issue of transparency. And that can be overcome if you run your government in a way that is very transparent. I think Matt [current UA president Matthew J. Davis ’16] has done a great job with that. Moving forward, I think the issue now is getting all student leaders and every administrator in a meeting on the same page, and so I think establishing clear confidentiality is [important].

I think I’ve learned a lot about leadership style … but I think what I would like the UA to be is a much more welcoming community … so I’ve been talking to people at ESP and I think a big reason for people to want to stay in an organization and want to keep working for things is [community].

The Tech: You actually brought up several of my other questions there.

Liu: Keep asking them. There are more shades of gray there.

The Tech: We can start with the confidentiality one. In your platform, you have something that says “collaborate with administrators to begin open discussions with the students early” and then you [refer to] creating a confidentiality code system. I was wondering what you think the balance is between not causing a campus uproar that shuts down discussion and still involving the student body in discussion.

Liu: The confidentiality code was Dante Delaney’s idea at a cabinet meeting. I thought it was really great.

On your question regarding how do we start the conversation earlier and how do we not get people upset over the idea of confidentiality in and of itself — I think as the UA we have to really advocate for open discussions of issues that we think need to be openly discussed. And that’s a vague answer, but I think on the whole, and I think Matthew would agree…[the only reason for keeping a discussion closed] would be because people are afraid of some sort of harm coming to somebody or people are afraid of losing their jobs, things like that.

The Tech: So do you think that the reason people didn’t want SHAC to be as widely publicized is because people were afraid freshmen housing would become “the issue” and no one would talk about anything else? How do you feel about these issues that have the potential to sort of shut down the conversation?

Liu: To be completely clear, I wasn’t on SHAC in the fall, but I’ve heard — and you should definitely ask people on the committee this — it was mostly that they weren’t even talking about freshmen housing. Matt told me they mentioned it once, and that wasn’t the focus of the group. And it was an open discussion from the very beginning. I think freshmen housing was mentioned a few times over IAP and then people were trying to regroup and plan for the spring semester, but at no point was it deemed this was a confidential discussion … I think it just took a while for the group to mobilize and actually get emails out.

I think students are pretty rational as a whole, and I think people get into an uproar when they think things are being hidden from them. I don’t think people are actually that upset at the UA, because we’ve always had an open discussion about this. So I think the upset aspect of this issue was the confusion over what actually happened and the perception of things being hidden.

The Tech: My other question was about making the UA more welcoming. This also goes back to why you think you’re the only ones running. What do you think you could you do to motivate more students to participate in student government?

Gomez: I think maybe having [more information] of what all these organizations are doing would be really helpful … I wouldn’t know what some of these committees actually do. I think that’s a good first step.

Liu: From my discussions with people in ESP and also committee chairs, the main reason that they think they’ve lost people superficially is that we don’t have money for food. If you look at ESP, they make most of their money … [so they can justify] spending a discretionary amount for the group as a whole to bond.

I think because we’ve really cut that out we’ve increased the activation energy of joining the UA for people who are curious and unsure about the experience. That being said, I don’t think it’s right to spend students’ money on internal things. But as a whole, I think that there needs to be a draw for students who are simply curious to join the UA, and the lack of that has caused a lower appeal of the UA recently.

The Tech: Are you looking to continue outside fundraising efforts?

Liu: Yeah, so the Resource Development Committee actually had success in that they actually got a sponsorship for SpringFest and things like that. And I don’t want to put the burden on committee chairs anymore, that’s for sure. I think a lot of committee chairs were very upset … A couple committee chairs did really well, but other than that on the whole it was just really hard for them to do both their funding and also their events and what they wanted to do.

The Tech: In your time on the UA, what do you think has been done well and what could be done better?

Gomez: I think that really getting the trust back … is a really big thing that Matt and Sophia have done well. I think that’s just a really good foundation for building upon in the future. That’s probably the biggest thing that they’ve done.

Liu: I think that Matt has a great quote where he says that the UA previously was like a brick wall surrounding the whole organization, and now it’s like a clear glass wall … it’s nice, people can see in, but the goal moving forward is trying to break down that wall so that people can come in whenever they want. Or sliding doors or something.

I have the deepest respect for Matt. Matt fixed the entire organization from the ground up … [in terms of] the standards of the UA and how we interact with other people. So I’ve seen that — how student government should be.

The Tech: I’m also curious about the part of your platform that says “Organize events in which student groups (dorms, FSILGs, clubs, majors, etc) have the chance to interact with people outside of their normal social sphere.” I was wondering how you would promote this and what sort of events you had in mind.

Liu: So, one, I think working with class councils to promote diversity events … to think about ways we can organize events to increase the exposure of people to new [social groups].

The Tech: What are some issues do you think don’t get enough attention?

Liu: I can say definitely diversity. We had a [UA] Council working session where we divided up into groups about different issues, and diversity had maybe two people out of thirty … I think people think it is an issue that is too hard to solve. You never hear that response to other things. But people respond that way to diversity all the time … and uneducated discussions happen and they end up being worse for everybody.

Gomez: [Diversity was also] one of the things that I was most interested in in the platform.

The Tech: What are you most excited about? Diversity is clearly something you’re excited about — are there some other things?

Liu: So this is something that I learned in class today: there are low-context cultures and high-context cultures, in the sense that if you go to the U.S., we’re super litigious, whereas in China and Japan there’s a lot of trust and they don’t go to legislation [quickly] …

I think Matt has led a very low-context administration in that he’s very explicit about a lot of things and he’s very clear. I want to keep that, but I think the result of that is a very formal tone that distances the UA from some students. I’m excited to eliminate that distance for people who want to be closer, for those who might be great fits for the UA. I want to make the UA a place where people who care about students want to join. I just want to lower the barriers to engagement. I think the standards are a lot higher for committee chairs definitely. I want anybody to be able to come in and just work on something, and I don’t want it to feel like it’s a time commitment necessarily or a burden. I want it to feel fun.

The Tech: How did you [and Gomez] meet?

Liu: [to Gomez] I saw your face on a lot of flyers before I met you.

Gomez: [laughs] I get that a lot. I think it was just one of those things where the opportunity opened up and I started thinking about it more and I was like, “Oh, this is really interesting.” But there’s a rule where you can’t run for UA vice president and class council vice president [at the same time], so it was really just deciding between those two. And class council has some of my best friends, so it was a really hard decision, but ultimately I think this really opens up a lot of doors in terms of being able to do more for the MIT community instead of just the class of 2018.

The Tech: What’s been most challenging for you guys as UA vice president and class council president?

Liu: I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Personally, I think serving in student government is a service, and I think for me I’ve cut out a lot of personal time and that’s fine, I’m happy with that, but I hear a lot of my friends being very upset with me, and I think it’s a problem that a lot of leaders face. I’ve talked to Matt about it, and Shruti had this to some extent, and I see this with Yo [DormCon president Yonadav Shavit ’16] and Taylor [former Panhel president Taylor M. Rose ’16] as well — just being very isolated sometimes. But I think it’s for a good cause, and I think there are a lot of issues the UA faces in being legitimate. Deciding to do things for the student body instead of things you might want to do instead [is hard].

Gomez: I don’t think I really got that sense of isolation on class council. It’s very different. It’s more just planning events that people are going to find interesting.

It was really just figuring out what the class wanted and finding creative ways to do that, because you don’t want to just do the same thing over and over again.

Liu: Yeah, I think I remember in class council the hardest thing for me was trying to make everybody happy with sweatpants. Or, just making people happy in general. People were always very picky about things.

The Tech: There’s a problem of maintaining continuity on projects that are started during one term. What can you do to help minimize this problem and ensure projects can be carried through?

Liu: We have an advantage on that this year. I’m aware of all the projects that are happening. [We want to try] to get our team together earlier on, have them come to cabinet meetings and start shadowing and transitioning a person, I think that would be really beneficial. And of course Matt did this as well last year, having very detailed transition documents and lots of meetings.

I’ll be having lots of meetings with Daisy as well, tell her what the role of VP should be and could be. I don’t think that will be a difficult thing. I think maintaining that after we leave will be the interesting part. And I think having detailed transition documents throughout the year, as well as the reports that Matt started will be a good thing in terms of getting a sense of what problems committee chairs will face.

The Tech: What do you think the overarching purpose of student government is and what should it be?

Gomez: That’s a hard question.

Liu: The thing that I have found that I agree with Matthew the most [is that people in student government are the ones] that want to work on the issues that allow the rest of the students to have a very positive college experience, [from organizing] Springfest to working on educational violations and transparency things. [We want] all the pipes to keep functioning and the electricity running so that students can do their own thing.

The downside is [that students] let the UA do things for them, and I think that’s where some of this apathy is coming from. So it’s to build a sense of community as well so that everyone feels like they’re involved. So it’s a dual function — building community and working on issues.

This interview, which was conducted partly via email, has been edited for clarity and length.