Editor’s Note: This episode was recorded on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.
Zach Wendling: Welcome to Campus Conversations, a podcast where we will bring on guests to talk about how local, national or global events or topics may affect our University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.
My name is Zach Wendling, one of the assistant news editors for The Daily Nebraskan, and thank you for joining me for this episode of Campus Conversations.
Hello everyone, and welcome back to Campus Conversations. My name is Zach Wendling and I am an assistant news editor for The Daily Nebraskan, and today I’m joined with [Association of Students of the University of Nebraska] president Roni Miller, internal vice president Drew Harrahill and external vice president Saisha Adhikari who are all from ASUN executive leadership team to talk about the return to the fall semester.
Roni, Drew, Saisha, how are all three of you doing today?
Roni Miller: I think we’re all doing well. Thank you for having us so much.
Wendling: Yeah, of course. And as we know, of course, this return to the fall semester, it’s unlike any of us would have imagined.
I know all three of you, you have not returned to campus just once like I have, it’s been something that you guys have done multiple times, so how are each of you approaching this return to the fall semester at UNL.
Miller: I think, for me, I’ll go first, I think something that I’ve been trying to focus on as we return to campus this fall is just flexibility, understanding, patience and focusing on what I can control. I think there’s a lot of things that cause stress, anxiety and worry, but those are oftentimes things that we can’t control.
So making sure that I know what I have power over and have some patience and acceptance for those around me as I move through those things is something that I’ve been focusing on and keeping me grounded as I do return this fall.
Drew Harrahill: Yeah, I definitely echo what Roni just said. I think knowing what I can control and knowing what I should and should not be worrying about has been very beneficial.
Also, I’m a person who really loves my routines, so being able to get into my routine this first week has been very helpful before I start in-person classes once again.
But also, I think because all of us have worked — I guess, I’m not going to speak for everyone, I can speak for myself here, but because we’ve all been working with the university leadership on this problem of tackling this semester for so long throughout the entire summer, I think we’ve probably had quite a bit of time to reconcile it within our heads, and at this point I’m pretty excited.
I’m excited to approach the challenge of reaching out to students and still getting everything that we need done, done this semester and this year.
Saisha Adhikari: I was on mute, ok. Definitely echoing what both Drew and Roni said, I think all of us are very type A and really need to be organized and know our routines, so this has really thrown a curve for all of us.
But being flexible and organizing our schedules even though we don’t know what this year might look like is important and just keeping our ground and keeping cool because these times are really challenging in every aspect, so taking care of ourselves, what do we like to do, making sure we’re still doing our passions and we don’t get caught up in the mess that other students create because we can’t control that like Roni was saying.
But overall, excited because this is our senior year and I still see this is where we can be creative with doing things that we can’t do in the normal way but now we have to do it virtually or in small groups, so I’m excited to be creative and just start the school year.
Wendling: Definitely, and Drew you kind of hit it on the head that, I know you said you’ve been working on things for the summer, I know Roni, you had the Forward to Fall Committee and, of course, the Board of Regents and Saisha, you were of course in our COVID-19 student training video, among, most likely, many other things.
So how have each of you been involved in decision making for the fall semester this summer?
Adhikari: I can go first for this one. Yeah, I think one thing I have appreciated over the summer is how administration has been really open to having conversations with us, especially ASUN and the exec team. People have reached out to us and asked for our input for what would be the best way to approach the situation.
So, for me personally, I was on the Forward to Fall Committee for the student experiences, so that relates to Student Affairs and from there I did the COVID training guide, so a little subgroup there.
And then I was in the Husker Dialogues committee and from there the steering committee and then from there the student experiences committee, so just a bunch of subcommittees. So that’s been nice having those voices and being able to represent students in those avenues.
And then, also, summer’s a great time to relax, but in this case we really had to be communicative with the student body, so I partnered with University Communication, UComm, with Katie Black to get graphics and videos and promotional things to make sure students are caught with what’s going on on campus and all the changes.
So I think communication was really important this summer, and I hope we did a good job because we did receive a lot of questions and feedback.
Harrahill: I can go. The biggest thing I worked on this summer is I was on the academic planning task force, which was one of the task forces that were put together to compile our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that one because academic planning, it’s definitely not as forward in student’s minds, so a lot of what we did was working with instructors to make sure that they are prepared. They know what technological resources they have to have to compile FAQs for instructors about what a hybrid model will look like, what their concerns are about the semester and then address those.
I guess the biggest thing that students are very aware of that we had a lot of influence on was the academic calendar, so our decision to come back a week earlier, or I guess our recommendation to the chancellor and then chancellor’s decision, to come back a week earlier to make that an asynchronous, remote week and then end by Thanksgiving and have finals week go through Saturday and Sunday.
So those were some of the bigger things that I worked on over the summer as well as trying to organize senate and figure out what ASUN operations are going to look like for this year.
Miller: And like you already mentioned, Zach, I served on the Forward to Fall Committee, so that was with other faculty and staff, co-chaired by Amy Goodburn and Bob Wilhelm, focusing on maybe every aspect of returning to campus this fall and kind of assigning and delegating other responsibilities and tasks as we moved forward.
And that involved serving on a variety of different subcommittees as we worked on policy, so some of the issues I really worked on were the facial covering policy, the Cornhusker Commitment, physical distancing guidelines, those types of things.
And there’s a really great article if you want to know more about Forward to Fall that Zach wrote.
Wendling: Alright, and of course as student leaders from ASUN, you are at the end of the day, students who are returning to campus as well. And with that mindset, how did each of you kind of approach this return?
Drew, do you want to start this time?
Harrahill: Yeah, for sure. I think drawing upon that experience of knowing that you are a student and everything that’s happening that we’re talking about very abstractly and these committees is going to affect you has been a great resource to draw upon, especially when we talk about, for example, like the mask mandate.
I’m like, ok, so, thinking about my experience, how is this going to affect my learning capabilities, how is this going to affect my social interactions, how is this going to affect my life, but then also knowing and being very diligent that my experience is not the same as everyone else’s and then trying to broaden that and think about other people who are not in my same circumstances.
But I do think it has been — it’s also been very useful to have that mindset of like, I’m coming to campus and that’s going to happen, and telling yourself that over and over again in the summer has been very nice because it, when uncertainty is like a looming figure, it can be a very problematic and not helpful for students, so being able to tell ourselves that over and over again has been nice.
Miller: I can go, sorry I was so attuned to Drew’s answer, will you tell me the question one more time, so I don’t just say what Drew said?
Wendling: Yeah, as a student leader, how has that mindset of being a student kind of impacted your mindset in creating these decisions?
Miller: Ok, yes. Drew gave a really good answer, but I will say that I think, as a student, being a student leader, something I have been focusing on and continue to try to focus on is that this is not just a decision that will impact me or students like me but every student who is not like me and for everyone who attends the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and some of the decisions that we make have impacts outside of the circle, like I think of some of our stakeholders in the Lincoln community, our peer institutions in the Big Ten, but also the other campuses within the University of Nebraska system.
So focusing on that bigger picture, I think, is something I hold close as I move forward in these decisions to recognize the gravity of them, but to also recognize that I’m not in this alone, and so I really try to rely on this great resource network of student leaders that we have at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, especially in my own executive team and within ASUN as well.
Wendling: And Saisha?
Adhikari: Yeah, I think what I like to do is put myself in other students’ shoes. So I might see something from my perspective, but what about a perspective from an international student or someone who has no ties to Nebraska because for the student training guide when they were talking about washing your hands, they first said, “Oh, just sing the [‘There is No Place Like Nebraska’] song,” and being honest, I didn’t even know the full lyrics for that.
So I was like, “Can we do something more universal that everyone will understand? Like the ‘Happy Birthday’ song?”
So they did include that in the end, but I think it’s things like that. You really have to say, “Ok, I’m seeing it from this perspective because I’m this, this, this, but then what about if I’m not?” And I think that’s something that’s important to think about as student leaders because we have to make sure the message is being reciprocated across all groups on campus.
So as Roni was saying, we definitely need to be collaborative on this, so every time I get an email, we always CC all execs, that is just something we always do to get the perspectives and ideas because it’s not just one brain on this, we’re better together.
And yeah, that’s the underlying message.
Wendling: Yeah, and this summer, of course, the coronavirus was not only the big topic that was being discussed, diversity and inclusion also became a very front-focused decision and movement with a renewed focus on Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd in May.
And I know one of your pillars when you first ran under the Envision party in the spring was focusing on inclusive excellence, and with that, and a focus on those decisions and how to focus on anti racism moving forward on campus, how in ASUN, in your daily lives and just anywhere, are the three of you going to focus on diversity and inclusion.
Miller: I can go first. Some of the aspects that we have focused on within ASUN is we released a joint statement with the Black Student Union that is a pretty lengthy statement, but it does really sum up the feelings that many students felt and detailed a lot of commitments and priorities of things that we would work on this year and collaborate within our campus.
ICYMI: @UnlBsu and @ASUN_UNL released a joint statement regarding the civil unrest and protests sparked in response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. ASUN looks forward to continuing to partner with @UnlBsu pic.twitter.com/LI0LxXthiN— ASUN Nebraska (@ASUN_UNL) June 25, 2020
One of those commitments that we will have for this school year is hosting a series of events, and our first event is actually coming up next [Tuesday, Aug. 25,] and that is a racial equity and inclusion conversation, on Zoom, of course, but hosted by ASUN and the Black Student Union with a partnership through [the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services] and Dish it Up.
So that’s on Zoom, at 6 p.m. on [Tuesday,] Aug. 25, and we’re hoping to have a series of events like that to focus on racial equity and inclusion.
And so in September, we’re working with the Office of Sustainability and other campus stakeholders regarding environmental justice and the intersectionality of climate change.
And so just hosting a series of events is one aspect of commitments we’ve made as a body, as ASUN, but I’ll let Drew and Saisha touch on the other aspects of your question.
Adhikari: Yeah, so throughout the summer I’ve seen numerous organizations, departments, faculty and staff speak up against the racial injustices in America and make statements and just action plans, but it’s the next step.
So if they’ve posted these statements, but then are they going to follow through. I think that’s kind of the picture or question everyone’s asking.
And there’s also been a lot of dialogue, so while I do think that dialogue is important, I don’t think it should be expected for a person of color to share their experiences and stories to get others to understand that they should be anti racist. People should already be anti racist.
So now I want the university to focus on, ok, how will we truly represent diverse perspectives and not tokenize students or use them as props to further our image but to actually amplify and support their voices.
I’m confident that the university will do that, because we as student leaders will definitely be partnering and collaborating, holding them accountable and holding each other accountable for this because this is a campuswide movement, it’s not just something that affects one group of students.
And as Roni said, we have a bunch of upcoming events, but I also hope that — I mean, every year ASUN gets a new exec team, right? I hope that this is something that won’t just be diminished after we’re gone but will be upheld for generations and just continue on campus. So, yeah.
Harrahill: Yeah, I want to reiterate everything Saisha said. What it does come down to as student leaders is it’s our job to create change on campus and that means making sure that everything that we’re talking actually gets done and that there is real reform within our organization, but then ASUN — the university at large.
Previous external vice president Ibraheem Hamzat talked about this very eloquently last year when he talked about — we said that it’s not about siloing people, it’s not just about having a space for the diversity and inclusion committee to exist, it’s about opening up ASUN.
And I’m gonna speak internally for ASUN, because, internal vice president, that’s what I think about quite a bit.
It’s not about just siloing people and allowing voices like that to exist only within the D&I committee or exec, it’s about opening up ASUN to be an inclusive space throughout everything that we do, and we’ve been working towards that and being very diligent about who we’re recruiting, what organizations we’re reaching out to when it comes to upcoming applications — and plug that applications are coming, are due on Sept. 4 at 4 p.m., you can find everything online. I’ll talk about that later as well.
And then during our orientation this last Wednesday, our application team talked about how they could change their questions to be more inclusive, especially for international students so we’re not basing our questions off of biases that we have from a domestic student or a Nebraska student and opening up doors like that.
So I think these are all ways that we can make sure that what we’re talking about is leading to actual change.
Wendling: And as was mentioned, inclusive excellence is one of your pillars that you ran on in the spring, but there were four other pillars, including mental health, dependable infrastructure, sustainability and transparency.
And as the coronavirus has shown, many plans, many goals for many people have changed. How have your goals adapted to or changed as a result of the coronavirus, and what is it moving forward?
Harrahill: I can go and speak quickly. I think a lot of our goals stayed the exact same.
We put those goals down on paper not because we just, like, thought they sounded good but because we really believed in them and that means even when obstacles come in the way we are going to fight to try to make the change that we believe in on campus.
So, I don’t think the goals themselves changed, maybe how we get there and how we think about it does change, and this, I think Saisha alluded to this earlier, this opportunity — this gives us an opportunity to approach problems in a way that we might not have before.
I think ASUN in the past definitely got into a routine of having outreach events and with booths on campus and then having social media campaigns, and we’ve seen that’s not always the most productive option. And, of course, large booth events and gatherings is not an option right now, so it gives us an opportunity to be very creative and strategic about how we’re going to continue these goals and make sure that we are transparent about that and reaching out to the student body with things like this podcast, so thank you, Zach, for helping us.
Miller: I think I will add on to that that the coronavirus pandemic has only, in some aspects, increased the necessity for some of those goals that we set, especially when it comes to issues such as improving mental health resources.
We have seen that the coronavirus pandemic has really taken a toll on college students and their wellbeing in all dimensions of that, and so making sure that resources on campus are adapting to those demands of coronavirus, such as having more telehealth experiences and more online options, and making sure that they are very accessible resources.
There’s still part of that goal setting that we created, which seems a time long ago, in my eyes, that’s still very pertinent, but kind of like Drew said, it just demands a certain level of creativity from us and a certain level of ingenuity and being able to accomplish those things in innovative ways.
Adhikari: Yeah, echo everything that they said, but another point is that the coronavirus has definitely added things to our list of goals because, for example, for sustainability, well, masks, people who don’t reuse them, they get the disposable masks, well that is causing problems, impact on climate change and it’s reaching animals, and I’m seeing pictures of birds getting it stuck in their beaks, so thinking about that and how to safely advertise, “Hey, reuse these masks,” and providing that and making sure people are still being sustainable with their actions during the pandemic is just one area.
And then mental health, Roni touched upon.
So, it’s definitely added to our goals, and I think we have to be really flexible and remember that we do have the challenge that we can’t do things the way we used to with mass gatherings and holding booths at the Union, but we can still have this really important virtual component. And that’s — I think we’re gonna start doing that, I mean we already have in the summer, but especially with the Communications Chair Alec Miller, we’ve already talked to him a bunch about how we really want to target students and make sure that we get the message across that we’ll still be obtaining our goals and we can all work together for them.
Wendling: Yeah, and then Roni, I kind of want to move over to your letter to the editor that was published on Aug. 17, the first day of remote classes, and I just have a few quotes and points from it before we move into that.
You said that “it’s a privilege to be on campus. A privilege that is not permanent” and that in March when we moved to remote classes just in general, it was an incredibly uncertain time with being asked to return home, no safe way to return home for some students, no safe home at all, no proper internet access and other reasons, which are some of the reasons that we returned for the fall.
And then you said, if we do not listen, if we ignore health policy, we will not stay on campus and “our time here together in Lincoln will be very short lived if we take this experience for granted. We cannot refute the reality of this pandemic, there is too much at stake.”
Can you kind of walk us through what you meant by that letter and what we need to do during this time to not refute this pandemic?
Miller: Yeah, definitely. I think that we’ve been very proactive in our return to campus and making sure students have the same expectations, the same expectations from each other, from their professors but also from some of those resources and “life” on campus and what that’s supposed to look like.
That’s why we had things like the student training that Saisha and I participated in and why there’s been just like email blasts almost constantly, but I think students have taken some of those things for granted.
I think that they haven’t relied on them as resources like they should, and so I wanted to make it very clear from the beginning, from our first day of remote classes, to all students as a student, that this is not just a request to wear your mask or to not attend large gatherings, this is a necessity for us to stay on campus.
And I recognize that that desire to be on campus is sometimes greater for some students rather than others, therefore their devotion to honoring those rules and policies is sometimes greater than others, but at the end of the day, it can’t be a couple people honoring the rules and a couple not.
And so, I think that is just sometimes easily forgotten about when we talk about the pandemic and returning to campus we forget about the struggles that other students are facing because we’re just focusing on our own.
We’re just focusing on the fact that, oh, I haven’t been able to see my large group of friends. Oh, I’m not going to have formals with my fraternity or sorority again. Those small things that have affected us whereas for a lot of students, the pandemic and leaving campus and the summer and what has transpired has affected them deeply, their very livelihood.
And so thinking of those students when someone questions whether they should wear a mask, thinking of those students when you want to go to a gathering of more than 10 people, I think that’s what I’m encouraging students to do because we have to all be in this together.
We have to recognize the reality of this pandemic, of the policies that are put in place, of the ask for all of us, and we have to move forward together, we can’t do this alone. Saisha, Drew and I can’t do this alone; we need everyone to be all in and all in together.
Wendling: And Saisha and Drew, I want to give each of you a moment to add anything or echo anything that Roni said as well, so whichever of you wants to start. Anything you would like to say.
Adhikari: I think, I mean, echoing the entire letter and what Roni said because we can’t do this alone, we need to be together for this.
I think a lot of college students right now are facing cognitive dissonance where their beliefs and their behaviors and actions are differing, and they’re really contradicting each other. So they believe the coronavirus is real, but then their actions prove otherwise because they’re not wearing a mask or they’re not following guidelines.
So we really need to provide no excuses to not wear a mask, and I think that’s what we tried to do with the training guide and handing out masks and giving two per student and enforcing it on campus, but we still see a disconnect.
So that’s what the letter is for and just to show students that we just don’t have any other option, we really need to be in this together.
And it’s tricky because for a lot of freshmen, this is their first college experience, and for seniors — me, Drew, Roni, we’re all seniors. I mean, this is our last college experience, so how do we still have the most enriching year but be safe about it?
And there are options, and I just hope, again, creativity, it just goes down to that and being together in this because I really want to be on campus still and be on it safely.
Harrahill: Yes, exactly what Roni and Saisha have said, and I want to highlight one sentence in the fifth paragraph that says:
“Not wearing a mask, even when it is just walking through [the] hallway of your residence hall, will result in more students, faculty, staff and those in our Lincoln community getting sick and dying, beyond just a departure from campus.”
And, of course, all of us and everyone at the university is very serious about how this affects our academics and how this affects our education. As students, we’re paying for tuition here, but also, this is much larger.
It affects, you know, it’s not just like our education, it’s not just the Lincoln economy, it’s not just the football season that’s being affected; it is the people in our community, it’s our grandparents, it’s our parents, it’s our brothers and sisters.
And the natural result of us doing anything that allows for this pandemic to continue means that more people will die, and that is a very, very serious charge to take into your heart, because this is the largest cause of death since World War Two and the third largest cause of death in United States history, and we take that number and that knowledge very seriously.
Wendling: And transitioning away from kind of the coronavirus for a second, kind of, not entirely because that is on all of our minds right now, but what can you tell us about how ASUN has adapted for the fall semester.
Harrahill: I guess I can go quickly. Again, speaking internally, the senate will be online, and if you would like to join senate, which I encourage many students to do so, they’re always public meetings.
The link will be published in the DN; also you can reach out to anyone in ASUN to see those meetings. Committee meetings will often be online and then, of course, many of our events, instead of hosting a booth, we will host virtual events and work very diligently on social media and outreach with other group leaders and community leaders to let our message be known.
Miller: I think another way that ASUN has had to adapt to the fall semester beyond just having our meetings virtually is kind of shifting what we’re focusing on or where our conversations fall in terms of priorities.
Like we kind of talked about earlier with our goals, those are still in place and what we’re like working on and what we’re focusing on, but Saisha mentioned toward the end that a lot of our time is being pulled toward addressing coronavirus pandemic and the university’s response, and so that really has changed how ASUN operates. We’re focusing on different things.
Public health was never a topic of discussion really within ASUN, within any branch of ASUN for that matter, so it requires us to form new relationships to gain a different type of knowledge and to really be looking at our peer institutions, other universities across the U.S. at how they’re doing it and how that should look here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Adhikari: Sorry, my Wi-Fi crashed, could you repeat the question?
Wendling: You’re all good. How has ASUN adapted to and will continue in the fall semester?
Adhikari: Another aspect is — it’s definitely interesting because we, I mean, like all of the changes have happened and we, like Roni said, have to focus on different ways of delivery and the outcomes, but another aspect is that students are now thinking of new passion projects, which is really interesting because I’m sure when they started ASUN, they were thinking something, but now the coronavirus happened and everything is just loud, chaos going on, and now they’ve already shifted their passions.
So I think we’re all growing as student leaders in that aspect, and we will continue to be better student leaders because this is in the area that is testing all of us. So how do we take on these challenges and become better leaders from this, so I think I’m ready for it and I’m excited because I believe in our senators and the exec team and the organization of ASUN, but although it’s changed, we still will do a good job, I think, of reaching students and still obtaining our goals and platform.
Wendling: Alright, and that was all of my questions for today, but Roni, Drew and Saisha, is there anything the three of you would like to add at all?
Harrahill: I’ll say one more thing, another quick plug that ASUN applications are open until Sept. 4, at 4 p.m., and you can find those on our website, asun.unl.edu, and go to “get involved,” and all of that can be done virtually and online.
And then, the very last thing I want to say is something I’m stealing from TJ McDowell, which is the assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, which is take care of yourselves, take care of each other and with keeping those two things in mind we can get through this.
Miller: I think I’ll just give a reminder one more time of our event that we’re hosting next week with the Black Student Union on Zoom, you have to RSVP and our link is on our social media accounts as well as the Black Student Union’s social media accounts. That’s on [Tuesday,] Aug. 25 at 6 p.m., a racial equity and inclusion conversation with OASIS and their program Dish it Up.
But I also just want to say thank you to Zach and to The Daily Nebraskan for taking time to talk with us this morning but also for your commitment to continue reporting for students this past summer and continuing that into the semester and the things that are important and making sure that we’re hearing the stories that should be heard.
Wendling: Well thank you, Roni. And Saisha, anything you would like to add?
Adhikari: Yeah, I just want to add that ASUN is here for students. We want to better the student body, we want students to be safe, so if anyone has any questions, [personal passion] projects, just anything, reach out to one of us. We are so approachable, but also all of ASUN, the senators, members, that’s something that was one of our goals is to be really approachable and have that transparency.
So whether it’s just an Instagram DM or you want to actually arrange a Zoom meeting, we are always here for that. And thank you, Zach.
Wendling: Well, thank you. Roni, Drew and Saisha, today was a great conversation, thank you all for joining me.
And to those of you tuning in, if you have any ideas for what guests or topics you would like to see on this podcast be sure to stay up to date with our social media platforms, but also feel free to comment down below on this video or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Until next, thank you all for listening, and be sure to join us for the next Campus Conversation.