News interview

Martin, Jiang on accessibility, student autonomy, and mental health

UAP/VP candidates discuss their objectives for the next year

With elections for UA president and vice president underway, The Tech sat down to talk with candidates Alexa Martin ’19 and Kathryn Jiang ’20 to talk about accessibility, communication between students and administrators, and their objectives for the coming year. Martin currently serves as UA vice president and Jiang as UA secretary.

Remember to vote for both UA and Class Council online by Friday, March 23 at 5 p.m.

The Tech: Why are you running?

Martin: Before coming to MIT, a lot of people see it as a very magical, inspiring place and a lot of that is lost during our time here. I care about preserving that, and that could be done through preserving student autonomy and encouraging innovation on campus and just making it a more exciting place to be.

Jiang: I think there's been a lot done in the last couple of years to improve student-admin relationships, but a lot more still needs to be done. And this is something I'm really passionate about: not just supporting student autonomy but also making sure that student communities are preserved.

The Tech: Why do you think you're running unopposed this year?

Martin: Similar to when [Sophia Liu ’17 and Daysi Gomez ’18] were running, there was trust in the current leadership of the organization and trust in the work that we've been doing. People feel that it's okay for us to continue in our leadership and didn't see a great reason for us to run opposed and have new leadership come in.

The Tech: If you each had to prioritize just two items in your platform, which would they be?

Jiang: I would prioritize academics and mental health.

Martin: Those are the exact two I was going to say!

The Tech: What are the initiatives that you think are the most important in those areas?

Martin: For mental health, right now a lot of administrators think, ‘Oh you've done a lot of work. We're okay now.’ But I don't think that's true. There's a lot of room for improvements in mental health, [such as] increasing accessibility to both MIT Mental Health and S3, specifically bringing S3 deans into dorms and potentially having off-campus [S3] office hours for students that live in FSILGs.

Jiang: Continuing the work on a unified mental health center on the west side of campus either in the main group, the student center, or another location would also help with accessibility and distance.

Martin: And then for academics, it's both education and professional development. I care a lot about carrying forward the recommendations from the [Designing the] First Year Experience class. For professional development, we should expand career fair to be more representative of various majors. We put so much emphasis on this one career fair. But that's a very unreasonable thing to do because different fields recruit at different times throughout the year. I think there needs to be a greater emphasis on professional development throughout the whole year.

The Tech: You have both been serving on the UA for the past year. What do you identify as your major accomplishments from the last year? What did you have the most hand in working on, and how did that play out?

Martin: The Designing the First Year Experience class has been something we both spent a lot of time working on, and I would say it is a pretty big accomplishment. Ian [Waitz] came to the UA last spring for this idea, and to see this class go through planning, running, and hopefully implementing changes will be really exciting. It's been a very long-term project.

I also think SwipeShare has been really, really exciting. A lot of people have donated and used the swipes and it's also raised awareness about food insecurity and accessibility in general at MIT.

Jiang: Within my role as secretary, improving communication and transparency both within the UA but also with the general student body is something that we talk about a lot. And I'm proud of the things I've done in the last year with improving the Byte, which Alexa [Martin] started, and also having other informal mailing lists and making sure that our meetings are more open and accessible.

Martin: Specifically something that we worked on a lot this year was decoupling the career fair revenues from direct student group funding. Moving forward, that's going to make a really big difference in career fair's ability to bring in companies that can't pay as much.

The Tech: What is your internal leadership style — what are you going to do to promote cohesiveness in the UA?

Martin: In general, the president should look very long term, like five years, ten years, on where they want MIT to go. And then it’s working with the officer team to create a vision and a plan of how we're going to make that happen. And then it’s trickling that down to committees and having them work on specific projects and initiatives.

So it's a lot about empowering [UA members] to work on things that they want to work on and creating a vision as one cohesive group instead of it being us telling them what to do.

Martin: I want to spend more time having our officers go to committee meetings and be more involved with the committees and understand what they're working on. Right now, I think the officers sit on this team above everyone, but the committee members don't really even know who we are or interact with us, and that's a problem. Looking forward, I want us to be more intimately involved with the committees so that we can really make sure they're working to achieve their goals and that we're also giving them the support that they need.

The Tech: And then turning to your external leadership strategy, what do you see as your vision for communicating with the undergraduates? I think a lot of people — if you stop them in the Infinite, would not really know what the UA is doing, and maybe they also have needs you might not be addressing, so how would you reach out to them?

Martin: I want undergraduates to see the UA as an active and powerful body that can really effect change at MIT and effect change on behalf of students. I want to continue with the ua-inform [mailing list], but I also want to spend more time having actual in-person conversations with undergraduates.

Right now, we have meetings that rotate through dorms on campus. I want to spend more time really encouraging students to come to those meetings and to feel like they can actually bring agenda items.

The Tech: And what do you see as the major avenues for making sure students can know that they're empowered to seek change?

Jiang: Maybe for us to go into their communities during mealtimes or during their house meetings are other ways for us to become closer to them, instead of asking for them to come to our office.

The Tech: Where do you see your major differences of opinion with the administration?

Martin: I don't know if I want to call it ‘major differences of opinion.’ I think that, in general, students and administrators want the same thing, right? Administrators don't want students to be unhappy; they don't want to do things that affect students in a negative way.

The Tech: What you think are the different approaches that students and administrators take to problems? How are you going to try and reconcile them?

Martin: It's very situation specific, but I think it's just coming to the table understanding that we both want to reach a common goal and we just have to figure out a way to do that. I also think it is important for us to understand how decisions are made at MIT. You can talk to administrators and ask for something, but at the end of the day, even if they wanted to give it to you, sometimes they can't because they're also following under other people [such as faculty].

The Tech: I want to talk about the events around Senior House last summer. Could you speak to student government's role in this? As student leaders during that time, would you have done something differently?

Martin: I'm going to answer your second question first. I would have done things differently.

I think a lot of times, it's hard as a student leader to act with your head and not your heart. And that's something that's really important to do, especially in times when you feel more emotional about an issue. It's very hard to stay level-headed and calm in meetings and act strategically.

And so, looking back on it, I wish that I as well as other student leaders had acted in that way, being more strategic and acting less with our hearts. But of course, it's a very difficult thing to do.

The Tech: What was the sort of strategic approach that you would have taken?

Martin: I think it would have been better to work with the administration more so than just fighting. In a lot of our meetings, we disagreed on many things. And instead of listening to their side, we just kept pushing back. At the time, it felt like the right thing to do. But looking back, I wish we had spent more time listening and trying to come to more of a compromise.

The Tech: And what do you think is the root of those disagreements?

Martin: A little bit of the root of the problem was that administrators were trying to protect students' safety and students were trying to protect student autonomy and student culture. We don't want to say that's what all students wanted or that's what all administrators wanted. That's not the case. But I think that in general, that was what the two groups were looking to preserve.

The Tech: Can you explain what this balance between student autonomy and safety is? What is your approach going to be in conflicts like these?

Jiang: Self-governance works really well when there is a level of trust between all parties. When students take responsibility for their own communities or spaces or education, it comes with certain responsibilities, and one of them is being cognizant of student safety. And I think a lot of the disagreements stem from the fact that administration just wants to make sure we are safe. And sometimes students forget that. I don't think that student autonomy and safety are inherently at odds with each other.

Martin: I also think it's important to continue to have the administration build trust in students and in students' ability to self-govern.

Jiang: I mean that goes both ways though. We want to make sure that students have some sense of trust and belief in the administration.

The Tech: In what ways specifically are you going to try to do that this year?

Martin: One really good way to help foster that is for administrators to go to communities of students and to be open to hearing from students about their feedback and to also expand their office hours.

And I would really like for students to bring their concerns and their issues to us so that we can act upon them when we have these conversations with administrators.

Jiang: I think one other thing I would add is working with other governments on campus and other student leaders because they also have really valuable insight and experience.

The Tech: You are both Lab Assistants for Designing the First Year — what do you see the UA's role is going forward in the class and then how those results will be used?

Martin: Our position as SLAs right now, although we're both in the UA, isn't directly a UA channel. So I don't want to say that this class is a UA thing. But moving forward I really want the UA to be involved in hearing the recommendations from students and working to implement them. 

The Tech: What are your main desires for the first year?

Martin: One of my desires is a leveling of the playing field. The first year should make every major accessible to every student no matter what background they came from.

Jiang: One thing I would add is the fact that a lot of students come into MIT feeling super excited. Then somewhere along the line in the first year they just lose that spark. And if there's one thing I would wish for, it’s to have students maintain that energy even after their freshman year.

The Tech: I was looking through your platform, and a lot of items are already being worked on. Is there anything that you guys would like to see happening that just isn't happening, new causes you'd like to advocate for?

Martin: In my big vision for MIT, I think it should empower students to really be passionate about things that they want to change in the world and to pursue those passions and not to just leave feeling really tired.

The Tech: What do you think would help make those changes?

Martin: I think it's a lot of little things, including mental health, education, professional development, student autonomy, student culture, and community. I think it's all these little things put together that would make MIT a really exciting place to be.

The Tech: We have all of these things now, but there's still something that you seem to see as broken. What is that precisely? How can we really make sure that students are empowered and excited?

Jiang: A lot of that is individual. For me, I got into student government because one day Allie [Stanton], the former president of EC, was like, ‘Hey there's a DormCon meeting, you should come, I think you'd be interested,’ and so I went. And so it's really individual connections and individual touch, and I think something like that is really hard to replicate as a large-scale institution.

Martin: One thing that we're not really working on right now as much as I would like to is working to create a more cohesive MIT community. It's really great that people feel very much a part of their living groups or different communities. But there isn’t one MIT community that I think people feel strongly a part of.

Jiang: Students are only here for about four years, so it's hard to take a long-term view on things. We need to start having conversations now about long-term projects like dorm renovations, but that's a really hard thing to get people to be motivated to do.

Jiang: [discussing the disconnect between students and administrators] There are a lot of conversations that don't really get escalated to a level where the people who make decisions know about it. And that's a pipeline that needs to exist.

Martin: I think one glaring example of this is SafeRide OnDemand. We met about it two days ago, and the administrators had absolutely no idea that students didn't like it. No one is sending feedback to [them]. And we happened to send out a survey to undergraduates — a very informal one — that got a lot of responses that we've now passed along. But if we hadn't done that, all of these conversations would have never been put into action.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.