(We Know) We Can Do It!

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By Jane Hong | Student Association Vice President Elect

When I was in third grade, my teacher asked who wanted to be our class representative. My hand immediately shot up in the air at the same time as a male classmate’s. He noticed, and yelled across the classroom: “You can’t do it, you’re just a girl!”

Student government has been a passion of mine ever such a young age. I enthusiastically volunteered for any leadership opportunity and ran for Associated Student Body (ASB) and class positions throughout middle and high school. Almost every single time I campaigned, I heard racist and sexist comments: people using my racial and gender identities against me, as if those were factors that contributed to my potential to lead an organization effectively.

I threw tantrums about these comments to my teachers, to which they would usually shrug off. I clearly remember how shocked I was when my female teacher asked me to sit out a campaign once, because “ladies know how to be quiet and men know how to talk.” I was taught how to be silent before I was taught how to use my voice, and told that my gender inherently made me a follower before it could ever make me a leader.

As much as I hoped that organizing a university-wide campaign would be different, I knew that it wouldn’t be.

When I decided to run for Student Association Vice President alongside Aysha Seedat, who identifies as Pakistani, we braced ourselves for any negative comments following our public announcement. The same day we announced, a friend sent a screenshot of a YikYak comment that read: “We need real men in leadership.” Not only was this person’s comment affirmed, there were others that followed his/her example. Comments read, “No way am I voting for that chink,” and “Aysha is a terrorist.”

“The Daily Orange” interviewed me about what my experience was like running as a female candidate in a competitive collegiate election. I was completely honest in sharing my experience, in hopes that it would challenge students (including myself) to reflect on the progress needed when it comes to creating an inclusive university community. What can we be doing as individuals and active members of this community to be fostering that? How can we communicate our intentions to others? How can we be empowering marginalized groups at a predominantly white institution (PWI) like Syracuse University?

The moment the article was published online, I had to take a deep breath while scrolling down to the comments section. For those of you who aren’t aware, the comments section on most articles for “The Daily Orange” is a vicious place filled with hateful and violent language written by anonymous users. And there they were again: comments like, “The kitchen is getting dusty,” and “These crazy loons are gonna be the worst candidates and if they win, the worst leaders of a club that doesn’t even matter because there are none of the God’s chosen people in it.”

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I desperately wanted to believe that an institution of higher education like Syracuse University would have a deeper appreciation and respect for diversity and inclusion within student leadership. I wanted to think that my fellow peers would respect our tangible Student Association experience, and the qualifications that we had for producing real results that impact the student body. I wondered if I was naive for doing so.

But just last week, 60 percent of the student body that voted elected the first two women of color as President and Vice President of Student Association. That’s 1,903 students on this campus that believed that Aysha and I are the most qualified to lead our student government, regardless of how we identify.

A few days later, we’re still celebrating our victory after pouring every minute of our free time into our campaign for the past four months. But our work–and the work of Syracuse University–still has a long, long way to go. When Michele Norris delivered her keynote speech at this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, she said: “The word, ‘post-racial’ is interesting to me because it assumes the work is over. And the work is never over.”

It’s important that we be critical of our university and the culture that exists on this campus. It’s the efforts of resources such as the Office of Multicultural Affairs and month-long events like the Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month that allow us to think critically about where we stand, where we need to go, and what needs to happen in order to get there. As Norris so eloquently put it, “Come take a seat at the table, reach out a hand, and try to understand–even if, at first, you don’t agree.” I not only challenge students to take a seat at the table, but to speak up, be loud, and understand that all of us have something to learn and something to teach.

Even a few months ago, I would have never imagined myself winning this election, let alone running for the position in the first place. I was doubtful that the odds would ever be in our favor, considering our respective backgrounds and histories.

Yet, here we are, as Student Association’s first Asian American President and Vice President. Two women of color who are incredibly passionate about our student body, and bringing positive change to a university so that no student ever has to question if, and where they belong on campus: so that this becomes OUR university–a community that would fail to exist and thrive without people just like you and me.

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