Joseph and Vasquez: Breaking Barriers, Paving Our Future

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COURTESY PHOTO / JEREMY SIMMONS

For the second time in the College of William and Mary’s history, the race for Student Assembly President is uncontested. Chair of the Senate Anthony Joseph ’21 and running mate Sen. Kyle Vasquez ’21 are poised to lead the College’s 328th SA session following elections Thursday, April 2. In a first for SA, the entire election process will take place online and away from campus as the College and the rest of the world experience COVID-19’s residual impacts on public life.

Joseph and Vasquez have outlined 14 central platforms since launching their campaign March 23. They emphasize unique points, including the inclusion of graduate students at the College, and also point to outreach and engagement as a central point of their campaign. Throughout their platform, they emphasize that student feedback and interaction provided inspiration for all proposed policies.

In addition to conducting analysis about all 14 points of their platform and scrutinizing incumbent candidates’ voting records, The Flat Hat also spoke with Joseph and Vasquez on eight of their major campaign points and learned more in-depth about the candidates’ most pressing agenda items moving forward.

COVID-19 Response

As the world deals with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Joseph and Vasquez acknowledged that a large portion of their role as SA president and vice president will come from helping the College during this time, as well as assisting students with acclimating back to College life after classes are reinstated on campus.

Currently, Vasquez and Joseph are both working in their senatorial positions to provide relief to the College. The senate hosted its first Zoom livestream meeting March 24 where the Emergency Pandemic Relief Act, which was written and sponsored by Joseph, was passed.

The bill provided $35,000 in emergency funding to the Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs, matching the total that the administration has spent so far on emergency response for students. The bill releases $20,000 to Student Affairs immediately and also provides an additional $15,000 funding tier once initial funds run out.

“I’m really, really relieved and happy that it passed on Tuesday,” Joseph said. “ … We felt the best thing to do was to match whatever the university has as far as funding they have already for those students. And I’m thinking of it this way. I’m thinking about how we’ve gotten to this point where last week was severely different, a week since then was also severely different and we’ve been totally unprepared by this virus at every juncture, and I just thought I would feel more comfortable matching them, giving them at least $70,000.”

Joseph emphasized that he and Vasquez, along with outgoing SA President Kelsey Vita ‘20’s administration, are working diligently to get all student concerns heard by administration like the Dean of Students Office. One of those concerns raised by students is the College’s decision not to pass a universal pass system.

Vasquez said that although the College could still adopt universal pass, both he and Joseph are preparing ways to help students still have an equitable pass/fail system if the College maintains its interim opt-in pass/fail policy. Vasquez also said that he and Joseph would contact the Cohen Career Center to set up classes to aid students in communicating to future employers how COVID-19 affected them academically without having to provide excessive personal detail.

Also under their COVID-19 portion of their platform, Joseph and Vasquez said they will work closely with administration to put plans in place that would decrease the effects of catastrophic events like the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes not only preparation for future pandemics, but also updating active shooter procedures and other emergency responses.

Joseph added that he and Vasquez are working closely with Vita’s administration to ensure a smooth transition during these difficult times.

Diversity and Inclusion

A major part of the campaign’s platform focuses on diversity and inclusion on campus. One aspect of diversity includes the drive to rename certain campus buildings, awards and other fixtures that are currently named after historical figures with ties to the Confederacy.

Joseph stated that this was a passion project of his throughout his time in SA. He referenced a recent senate resolution which renamed the Ewell Award to the Cypher Award as an example of how the campus community was ready for change, and he said he experienced little pushback on this resolution because of how he presented the issue.

Vasquez concurred with his running mate and said Joseph’s work has helped the College community see both sides of its complicated history. He suggested that students should consider whether the actions of some of these historical figures are in line with the current values of the campus community.

Joseph also said his administration will oversee conversations about the College paying reparations to African Americans for its role in enslavement in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.

Joseph intends for these dialogues to take place with groups like the Lemon Project and the senate’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Reparations. He emphasized that he does not yet know what these reparations will look like, but he wants these groups to explore several possible options, such as the Georgetown model where all students pay into a fund for reparations.

“This is just something we want to guide and continue to make sure it’s not moving too fast, but it’s moving at a rate which there is good progress being had.”

“This is a multifaceted issue, and the fruits of this aren’t going to be next year,” Joseph said. “This is just something we want to guide and continue to make sure it’s not moving too fast, but it’s moving at a rate which there is good progress being had.”

Both Joseph and Vasquez made it clear that they would prioritize students’ opinions when making any decisions on these kinds of issues.

Mental Health and Wellness

Throughout his time in SA, Vasquez has worked alongside Sen. Derek Kernus ’14 M.B.A. ’20, Nick Wheaton M.B.A. ’20, Class of 2022 President Suhas Suddala ’22 and Sen. Jahnavi Prabhala ’22 on SA’s Mental Health Initiative, which works closely with the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center to improve the College’s mental health system.

Much of Vasquez’s work with the Mental Health Initiative has become the basis for the mental health and wellness portion of their campaign platform. He said discussions regarding mental health have changed drastically since his freshman year — a development he hopes to foment as vice president.

“The conversation around wellness even my freshman year has changed so much,” Vasquez said. “I remember when I was in Student Assembly my freshman year, I was always kind of like ‘Oh guys this thing about mental health or this thing about mental health.’ And they would be like ‘Oh yeah, yeah go ahead and do it.’ I wouldn’t want to say that Student Assembly didn’t take me seriously, but it wasn’t something we were actively having a conversation about.”

Currently, he has worked with Associate Vice President of Health and Wellness Kelly Crace to create seminars on grief and has aided the Mental Health Initiative in conducting data analysis to determine what must be done to address student needs at the Counseling Center, whether it be hiring additional counselors, hiring counselors with specific skill sets, and making sure to take counselors’ diversity into account.

Vasquez said that one poorly publicized aspect of the Counseling Center is the fact that the it works on a case-by-case basis and can continue working with a student who may not be able to access or use other counseling services — a reality that he and Joseph will make more accessible to the community.

“It’s something that’s kept a little under the radar because they don’t want to overwhelm their resources,” Vasquez said. “And the reason that I feel a bit comfortable talking about it although I’ve been told that it’s an under the radar thing is because again, we are actively doing this work for the counseling center to not be an under resourced center…”

Title IX and Sexual Assault Prevention

Another major part of their platform was Title IX and sexual assault prevention, which was heavily discussed in 2019 SA elections. Joseph and Vasquez said they will continue advocating for the implementation of the Callisto program, which allows survivors to report their experiences confidentially and provides them with a counselor who can help them assess their legal options.

Overall, Vasquez emphasized that he wanted students to be aware that they had choice and control when it came to reporting assaults, despite any recent changes to Title IX at the federal level.

“We want to meet with administrators to make sure that choice isn’t taken away,” Vasquez said. “That’s my biggest fear. Personally, I don’t think that it’s appropriate to interrogate students, especially if they’re coming forward as a survivor. That’s like the last thing they should be doing. The one thing that we’ve really been actively working on is finding a way to give students their choice back, regardless of what Title IX is doing federally.”

“Personally, I don’t think that it’s appropriate to interrogate students, especially if they’re coming forward as a survivor. That’s like the last thing they should be doing. The one thing that we’ve really been actively working on is finding a way to give students their choice back, regardless of what Title IX is doing federally.”

Joseph then said that Callisto’s implementation has previously been a “slow burn” project, and that his administration would continue the work that Vita’s administration began by collecting data on campus sexual assault.

Vasquez stressed the importance of educating all parts of campus about sexual assault prevention, including professors and recognized student organizations. He suggested that these groups should be highly advised to attend training sessions led by professional representatives from the Counseling Center.

Public Affairs

Joseph and Vasquez then addressed the College’s new housing policy, which mandates that all students live on campus for their freshman and sophomore years. While Vasquez acknowledged that this may contribute to a greater sense of community in some scenarios, he also theorized that some sophomores view the move as a money grab by the College.

Vasquez stated that this situation will improve once the College quantifies the needs of students, which will only happen if the students provide feedback on housing and make their voices heard. He argued that students should not have to accept substandard housing just because they are first year students.

“Accessible housing isn’t a luxury,” Vasquez said. “Having appropriate housing is a demand and something that we need.”

Joseph added that the housing issue could become an even bigger conversation over the next few years as the College looks to expand its enrollment numbers.

“This is backing off of our understanding that William and Mary wants to expand by 600 students in the next four years,” Joseph said. “Where are we going to put these people? That’s a legitimate question. Where?”

Joseph also stressed the importance of the greater Williamsburg area’s relationship with the campus and suggested that the College should begin exploring eateries in Williamsburg that could offer more economical dining options to students, as well as the possibility of more establishing affordable off-campus housing.

Academic Affairs

Joseph and Vasquez’s academic affairs platform involves overhauling the College’s fine arts programs.

“The fact that they tear down PBK and say this is the projected timeline we are working with, and for whatever reason that contract falls through, and then now it was projected that Kyle and I would be able to perform our concerts, our senior last concerts ever… we can’t and that we have to find somewhere else to go, I think is crazy,” Joseph said.

Vasquez added that prospective students should feel that they can receive a great academic experience as well as a great fine arts experience when considering whether to attend the College.

Other aspects of their academic affairs platform include advocating “for the expansion of departments, such as philosophy and languages, to areas that veer out of Western teaching”, and providing student support groups for students who are struggling financially.

Looking forward

In looking forward to their upcoming tenure, Joseph and Vasquez reflected on what they had seen as a fundamental shift in SA’s culture, in which the body had gone from being a “good ol’ boys club” to a place of diversity and openness, where open dialogue and conversations about mental wellness occur in almost every meeting. They also acknowledged that SA was not always an easy place to be a student of color.

“I would not be surprised if it was difficult to be a person of color in Student Assembly, and that it was difficult to voice your opinion,” Vasquez said. “That’s what our past used to be, and it’s very important to acknowledge our past.”

Vasquez said that increasing diversity in SA is important because it allows for students from all backgrounds to express their views and help their common community.

Joseph agreed, saying that he has seen a change even in the general attitudes of people who serve in SA.

“They were very self-absorbed, they had the clout of being a senator for Student Assembly,” Joseph said of past senators. “I still saw a degree of some of that when I came in, a little over a year ago now. But I think the biggest difference has been that erasure, at least to me, seeing that haughtiness go away. Seeing that these people that are around me, my good friends, are very absorbed with the work they are doing, but not with themselves.”

“We recognize we have big shoes to fill, 110 percent, without a doubt.”

Joseph also stated that he had a large amount of respect for Vita’s administration, especially in the wake of their handling of the pandemic and the College’s subsequent response. He expressed a desire to continue much of their work during his time in office.

“We recognize we have big shoes to fill, 110 percent, without a doubt,” Joseph said. “So the best thing I can hope for us to do is to continue whatever good work that they were working on, because surely it was something, because it got some things done.”

Elections will be held Thursday, April 2.