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A year in review: The Merchant-Semmler administration

Shamina Merchant and Shawn Semmler were elected as president and vice president of Undergraduate Student Government for the 2018-19 school year. Credit: Kaylin Hynes | Copy Chief

As former Undergraduate Student Government President Shamina Merchant and Vice President Shawn Semmler concluded their time in office, they leave behind a number of policy achievements.

In the past year, the Merchant-Semmler administration took steps to improve mental health resources on campus; increase diversity and inclusion; make college affordable; advocate for sexual assault survivors; and improve the university’s sustainability.

“Ohio State is our home, and being a part of USG in a year when we as a campus faced a number of very significant challenges that ended up bringing us together as a Buckeye community, it’s really humbling,” Merchant said.  

The year kicked off with Merchant serving as a student member of University President Michael Drake’s Mental Health and Suicide Task Force, which met for the first time in April of 2018. The task force facilitated the future addition of two Stress, Trauma and Resilience staff members on campus.

“It came from a point of repeated tragedies that this conversation had to happen,” Semmler said. “It’s not a conversation you’re excited about having, but it’s one that us and the student body have been saying for a while now needs to happen.”

Semmler said they were proud to make mental health a focus of their administration as they pushed for the creation of an implementation committee to follow up with the task force. The university has since hired three new Counseling and Consultation Service counselors, funded a warmline and begun the creation of a mobile mental wellness app.

In January, Merchant traveled to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California as a student representative for the creation of the app in conjunction with the Digital Flagship initiative, as a result of the task force recommendations.  

Earlier in Merchant and Semmler’s administration, the Board of Trustees approved two initiatives in August brought forward by USG: the elimination of 70 percent of course fees via a Merchant-Semmler project in Shared Governance as well as a resolution that would allow students to take between 19 and 21 credit hours without any additional cost.

Semmler said this early victory showed that the team would make good on campaign promises, and Merchant said it depicted the perseverance of Ohio State students.

“I think it was a testament to the fact that at Ohio State, if you put your mind to it as students, you can make anything happen,” Merchant said.

The administration expanded on accessibility to free menstrual products across campus, an initiative started by former USG leaders Andrew Jackson and Sophie Chang, by adding dispensers into restrooms in more than 120 buildings on campus, according to Merchant.

Diversity and inclusion was another central theme to the USG leaders’ year. The Merchant-Semmler administration expanded the options for identities available to students applying to Ohio State through the Common Application or Coalition Application, including the ability for Middle Eastern or North African students to self-identify instead of being categorized as white, according to Merchant.

“This new initiative with the Common and Coalition App is something we’re really excited about because one, it’ll give students the opportunity to self-identify and really own their identities, and two, I think the fact that Ohio State will be the first public institution to do so speaks to the fact that we value all identities here,” Merchant said.

November brought the first international alumni professional panel in an effort to ease internship hunting for international students, created by the diversity and inclusion committee.

The administration also launched the first-ever mandatory sexual assault awareness training, and early in spring semester, the pair submitted comments on the proposed changes to Title IX.

“On a national scale and on our own campus, supporting survivors has been a major theme for us this past year,” Merchant said. “What we focused on was trying to be there to listen.”

Ohio State’s Sexual Civility and Empowerment Office closed shortly after the administration took over. Since then, Merchant said the team has had a hands-on role in designing the new Office of Institutional Equity, which will handle university-related Title IX issues.

“We’ve basically been there for the whole time, from SCE closing until assessing our campus’s Title IX practices,” Semmler said. “We were able to bring in dozens of students groups through direct meetings testimonials and focus groups into that conversation to really shape what the Office of Institutional Equity is going to be.”

The General Assembly passed a resolution encouraging the distribution of box fans to students without air conditioning, and Ohio State’s Board of Trustees approved the design phase of installing air conditioning into dorms without it. According to Semmler, air conditioning could be installed in communal rooms of dorms as early as this fall.

The administration also brought Lime bikes and scooters to campus in an effort to provide a wider variety of affordable transportation options to campus, Merchant said.

Merchant and Semmler also explored the future of Student Safety Services into a potential rideshare initiative.

Under Merchant and Semmler, USG also brought energy-harnessing sports bikes to recreation centers and tested composting at Morrill Traditions.

“[Composting] always seemed like this idea, this Holy Grail that was kind of unreachable, and they did it this year,” Semmler said.

In the end, Merchant reflected on the team’s campaign slogan, “students serving students,” to summarize their year in office.

“Our goal is to be students serving students, and throughout this entire year, that has been our compass,” Merchant said. “Our values and our mission to be students serving students is what guided this entire year.”

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