Under the Shamina Merchant and Shawn Semmler administration, Ohio State’s Undergraduate Student Government has worked through the summer and fall to implement its campaign promises, while also addressing immediate issues facing the student body.
Now, Merchant and Semmler are entering the last three months of their term hoping to address some of those same issues, while looking to improve the culture and outreach of the organization.
Merchant, USG president, said they are looking to three main issues that have been a focus for them since their 2018 campaign: affordability, inclusion and wellness.
“Those topics were founded on feedback we got from students during the campaign,” Semmler, USG vice president, said. “Those were the categorized concerns overwhelmingly, so that’s why in terms of a compass, we said ‘hey, this is what students are concerned about, this what we want to run with,’ so we are continuing with that this semester.”
Merchant said USG wants to improve out-of-state student affordability. While she did not specify how they plan to do that, she said she wants to spend more time on this issue.
This past fall semester, two USG-led affordability proposals were approved by the Board of Trustees in August: to eliminate 70 percent of course fees and to remove additional fees for seniors who want to take 21 credit hours.
Regarding inclusion, Semmler said they hope to add the distinction for “Middle Eastern/North African” identity to the Ohio State applications.
“Oftentimes, students from that region have to identify as white, and that’s not the same experience at all,” Semmler said. “Those populations just aren’t treated the same, unfortunately.”
Merchant said Ohio State would be the fifth university to add this designation, following Brown University, Harvard University, Cornell University, University of Southern California and Duke University. Semmler said he is hoping to have this in place in time for applications that become available in August 2019.
On the wellness side, Merchant said they want to see more improvements to mental health resources, including the implementation of the “warm line” — described as being different from a crisis hotline, in that it is available late at night and early in the morning for students to call and receive support from “highly trained student volunteers” — and student access to buying subscriptions to Headspace — a guided meditation app.
“We want to see the mental health implementation steps are really clear and solidified as we end our term,” Merchant said, noting that some would “take a lot longer than a few months, but things like the ‘warm line’ and others, we want to make sure at a minimum that infrastructure is in place.”
She also said that before they end their term, they would like to see the plans for a replacement sexual assault survivor office in place. Ohio State’s Sexual Civility and Empowerment unit was shut down in June and measures have been taken to fill the void, but a permanent office is not in place.
During their time as leaders of the organization, Semmler said they have had to readjust their focus as an organization, depending on what was currently the most pressing issue for the students, with mental health being an urgent topic for them from the start.
“[The issue of mental health] has really shaped what our fall has looked like,” Semmler said. “The mental health task force was huge over the summer, Title IX review; a lot of these really heavier issues than previous years, and our [committee] directors have really stepped up to the plate.”
But Semmler also said they are always looking to improve as an organization, with an emphasis placed on reforming outreach and messaging.
“We can always do better on the engagement side,” Semmler said. “We’ve been doing a pretty good job bringing student orgs in to form policy, but on the other side, we need to broadcast it back out.”
Semmler also said culture was a main area of improvement for the organization, which included bringing in returning members of USG to their administration, while also bringing those in who have never been in the organization before, such as Reagan and Reese Brooks, who ran against Merchant and Semmler in the 2018 election.
“Culture-wise, we used to be in a really bad spot, and I think we really tried to change some of that when we ran our campaign,” Semmler said. “We had a lot of carry-over and we brought in the Brooks brothers too. We really have a different tone in USG [this year], which is kind of fun.”