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UGBC Wants Your Attention

The Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) has a really nice office on the first floor of Carney. It’s bright and air-conditioned, with a bunch of cubicles set up on all sides for the heads of UGBC’s different departments. It seems like the type of place where open and clear discussion between different groups would be easy, which is why it’s surprising to hear UGBC’s members say that it’s not.

In years past, several told me, the organization has suffered from a general lack of communication between its branches and a marketing operation that hasn’t done enough to tell students about UGBC’s accomplishments. It’s also battled the perception that it’s exclusive and insulated from the student body, and general frustration at the slow pace of policy change in working with the administration.                      

This year, many hope, that’s going to change.

Last spring, I talked to Russell Simons and Meredith McCaffrey, this year’s UGBC president and executive vice president, both MCAS ’17, about their plans for their tenure. Student perception kept coming up, as, at the end of a confusing and drawn-out election season with the lowest turnout—by far—in years, UGBC seemed to be at a crossroads. It had to act, Simons said. Transparency was seen as critical to the group’s future.


So over the summer, UGBC’s communications department got a fresh look. Led by Emily Yu, this year’s vice president of communications and MCAS ’17, the department, formerly focused solely on internal event marketing, added an outreach arm to work on student perception and branding. It just might save the day.

Toward the end of every school year, after the UGBC presidential election, students apply to the executive board, home to the vice presidents of the different branches.

Those are—in addition to communications—diversity and inclusion, finance, student organizations, student initiatives, and the Undergraduate Leadership Academy (ULA), a group of about 40 freshmen who get an orientation to UGBC and an intern-like spot in one its departments.

Usually the people who get those positions helped out on the winning team’s presidential campaign or have been in UGBC for a while. Not Emily Yu.

“I’ve actually never been a part of UGBC before, so this is a completely new experience for me,” she said. “To say the least, it’s been an adventure.”

Before this year, Yu worked on marketing for the Asian Caucus, which gave her a sense of how campus groups attract and direct attention. It also gave her a pretty negative view of the organization she now helps run.

“Why would you go out and try to vote for someone when the change that they promise isn’t going to come within the next four years?” she said, talking about how she’s felt in years past. “A lot of people aren’t invested in long-term development of BC and UGBC because they just don’t feel represented. Which is what I thought, as an outsider.”

It was only recently that she got a sense of the sheer number of programs and events that UGBC runs, and of its role on campus. And UGBC is excited to have her.

“When they picked the new VPs last year everybody was like, ‘Who’s Emily? She’s new? What?’” said Prianka Bedi, director of outreach for UGBC and MCAS ’18. “So many people were so excited, like, ‘Oh my God, they’ve chosen somebody from the outside, that’s so good.’”

This is Bedi’s third year in UGBC, and for the first two she’s been frustrated by the criticism leveled at it by students. Every semester, the group creates a list of its accomplishments, which she said is always long but little-discussed by the rest of the school. So last spring, Bedi started looking for ways to fix that. At a UGBC general meeting, she and Matt Baldwin, MCAS ’18, stood up and said that anybody who was interested could step out into the hallway to brainstorm. That hallway session yielded an outreach pilot program, which officially launched this year.

Added positions include photographers, videographers, coordinators for events, brand, and research, and an interdivisional liaison to fix communication between UGBC’s branches. The goal is to create a sleek and efficient operation that seeks to clarify to students just who’s doing what. Yu told me that last year, she was at the AHANA Leadership Council’s (ALC) annual Showdown dance competition when somebody said they had no idea that ALC, a subsidiary of diversity and inclusion, was part of UGBC.

That stuck out to Yu as a major problem with a simple fix, and Meg Loughman, outreach’s brand coordinator and MCAS ’19, did a lot of work over the summer to standardize UGBC’s logo to make sure people know, for example, that it runs ALC. In addition to being a source of student confusion, those inter-UGBC relationships have been a problem in the past, so the communications department’s reorganization also serves as a streamlining that should help UGBC work better.

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Loughman said that last year, as a freshman in Undergraduate Leadership Academy, she was thrown into the communications department, which lacked clear focus.                     

“I literally had no role,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, and without formal Photoshop training I really couldn’t contribute to the team at all. It was a lot of people doing their own thing, a lot of people with certain artistic talents being really overworked and others really not doing anything at all.”

That led to this year’s rotation system for marketing design, led by “creative coordinators” who will work on making sure there’s a more equal allocation of jobs.

The research coordinators, Derek Xu, and Chris Liu, both MCAS ‘19, worked all summer to create a statistically viable survey that will help UGBC measure its approval rating and get a sense of its place on campus and of what students want to see it do. They’ll issue a similar survey in April or May to see how the approval rating and student feedback change.

“If you asked somebody what UGBC does, you’d get 10 or 15 percent able to tell you,” Bedi estimated. “By the end of the year, we want that to be 20 or 30 percent.”                                                         

The pilot program also led last spring to a March Madness policy bracket. Outreach started with 16 different policy proposals submitted through Campus Voice, a space on UGBC’s website for students’ ideas, and as people voted throughout March those options got whittled down until just one policy remained: avocados—that Holy Grail of Mac food—in the dining halls. Sometimes it’s that simple. Usually it’s not.

When I sat down with Yu and Bedi, the conversation eventually shifted from how to market the stuff UGBC does, to the stuff UGBC does and how it does it. Fixing student disillusionment is going to be in part about making sure it doesn’t take literally 10 years to put printers in Lower, and that means working with the school. Which can be hard.

“A lot of people see UGBC as this huge bureaucratic body that has a lot of people in it but doesn’t really get to do anything, and a lot of people see the president and the EVP as just another title, like a resume padder,” Yu said. “Which is somewhat true, because UGBC is limited by a lot of administrative barriers.”

According to Bedi, those barriers are related at least somewhat to the administration’s structure. With any policy goal, she said, there’s no one channel to go through to make it happen. It’s always about multiple layers of approval, going first to one person, waiting for them to say yes or no, waiting for their boss to say yes or no, and so on. And that wears on UGBC’s members.

“Last year, people would come into the office and be like, ‘I’m done, I’m quitting, it’s been two years of this, I’m done,’” Bedi said. “The thing that keeps people going is the passion. So many people who are in UGBC, we’re not doing it for the title, we’re doing it because we genuinely want to help the student body.”

Here’s an example that frustrates Bedi: for two years, UGBC has been trying to get T passes for nursing students to travel to their clinicals downtown at hospitals like Mass General. Nick Raposo, CSON ’18, told me that a semester of clinicals can cost a nursing student $140 or more in T charges, even though the work is unpaid. He said that, when one of his classmates was touring BC as a high-schooler, she was told the school covered nursing students’ transportation costs, which is not the case. In order to get to that point, UGBC has to gather data to make sure that the students will actually use the T passes, which requires a pilot program, a restructured budget, and the OK of nursing, student affairs, and finance administrators.

The thing that keeps people going is the passion. So many people who are in UGBC, we’re not doing it for the title, we’re doing it because we genuinely want to help the student body.

Another issue, Yu said, is that sometimes both sides of the negotiating table are on different wavelengths. Administrators, many of whom have been here for a long time or will be here for a long time, naturally tend to take the long view, while in the grand scheme students pushing for big changes have a pretty short window in which they can get what they want. If their four years end without success on that front—well, then it just doesn’t matter. Off they go, out into the world, their spots filled by new, similarly hopeful faces. Students’ interests move in cycles, edging forward in fits and starts, while the administration forges a clear path toward BC’s overall goals in the form of 10-year plans and billion-dollar fundraising campaigns. But in general, Yu said, administrators share UGBC’s goals.                          

“I think sometimes we might demand something kind of crazy, and be like, ‘We want this done in three years,’ and administrators just say, ‘No, you can’t do it,’” she said. “Then I think people just say, ‘Oh, the administration is evil,’ even if that’s not the case.”

Mark Miceli, associate director of student engagement in the Office of Student Involvement, works closely with UGBC and has seen its efforts up close. He said in an email that, from an administrative standpoint, most projects on campus tend to run in six- to 18-month cycles. And those projects almost always have complicating factors.

“What might seem very easy to implement on the surface, can quickly balloon into a substantial project unexpectedly,” Miceli said.

So UGBC has to think about the existing schedule of projects, and find a place to fit in its new initiatives. That’s on top of additional budget conversations that need to happen. Moral of the story: the entire focus can’t just shift. These things take time. A one-year UGBC project is an extremely difficult undertaking, so Miceli recommends that it spread its projects out over more than one term. But that can be tough. Maybe there’s a problem with how the election works: because turnover is so high—the president, executive vice president, and executive board members all have one-year terms and are often seniors—long-term focus could be almost impossible.

But maybe this is the year. UGBC has the help of some experienced members in Simons, McCaffrey, and Bedi, and a fresh-faced pragmatist in Yu. Don’t count them out.

Featured Image by UGBC

Featured Graphic by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor

September 11, 2016