“This is a big shakeup for me personally. I hope I can bring increased transparency to our work,” said Heather Moenck in assuming the presidency of the Student Senate at the Dec. 1 meeting. Per Senate bylaws, Moenck took leadership after replacing former president Dhibo Hussein on Nov. 29.
With the resignation of another member, the Student Senate had two vacancies to fill at their Dec. 1 meeting. Three students applied, and Sociology major Kunta Kenyette Harris and Biology major Adowa Juste were elected by paper ballot.
Juste was subsequently elected to serve as Vice President. “I want to help, I want to be a bridge,” Juste said. “I will bring responsibility and discipline to the role, and I am a quick learner.”
The Metropolitan sat down with Moenck following the Dec. 1 meeting to discuss the progress of the Student Senate.
How would you gauge the work of the Student Senate at the midyear point?
I’m kind of torn in how I think we are doing. We’ve done some really good things, and I’m really proud of that. But my expectations don’t really match what is happening.
I think that’s more because of the way bureaucracy works. And many of our Senators were new at the beginning of the year. I think all but a handful were new. So I think Senate is doing really well given where we started.
We organized the St. Paul Mayoral Forum, which was amazing. We had a lot of people turn out. And we just passed affirmative consent which I am really excited about.
I definitely have these visions and grand plans. We are going to do great things—but it takes time.
Would you characterize yourself as an ambitious person?
I am ambitious and headstrong. I don’t like hearing “no,” but I do like constructive criticism. I always want to hear how I can do better and tackle more.
You noted that you find bureaucracy frustrating—how so?
A lot of things that we want to happen, we have to take through different channels. Senators can’t just snap their fingers and get more affordable textbooks for students just because we want them. We have to talk to faculty organizations, professors, administrators, publishers. It’s a lot of people to talk to and that takes a long time. Before you know it two months have passed, and you’ve only moved two inches on the issue. Not nearly as far as you’ve wanted to go.
As a student leader, do you feel listened to? On the textbook affordability issue, for example?
Oh yes. I think part of what takes so long is that they hear what you’re saying and then they have to bring those conversations back to their organization. And then the people there fan out to have even more conversations. So everyone’s doing what they can. I just wish they did it faster.
Open source textbooks are what we’re advocating for. Companies are buying textbook rights and putting them online. Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) just reformed how they do their textbooks, and changed their curriculum a little bit to make use of open-source textbooks. I wish we could do more to get faculty here on board so we don’t have students spending $500 on a textbook and then only have to read two chapters from it.
Samira Adam and Ashley Coyle headed this initiative. They worked really hard over the summer. They talked to our bookstore staff and other universities to look at the textbook models of other schools. For example, Mankato State University has textbook reserves, where students donate their old textbooks and then anyone can rent them without a fee.
Our effort got as far as it could, and now somebody new needs to pick it up and run with it. There’s a learning curve for new senators, of how to get things done, who to talk to and how to facilitate these conversations. And there’s a lot of anxiety and reservations. You’re taking a student with minimal experience and putting them in a role with power. Teaching them that they have a voice and how to use it—it takes awhile. Especially in bureaucracy, where you’re told no all the time and you have to be persistent.
The Student Senate unanimously passed an ‘affirmative consent’ policy tonight. It’s been in the works at Students United [the Minnesota State universities student advocacy group] for awhile. But in the last two months, the national conversation on sexual harassment and assault has really accelerated. Did that impact your effort?
Affirmative consent already passed at Mankato and another university [Winona]. The other four schools are working on it. I know they’ve had more pushback or hesitation to the idea of affirmative consent. I’m just really glad we passed it here. We’ve been talking about this for years. Earlier this year we wrote changes to Minnesota State policy 1B.3, which is the language we will propose to the Board of Trustees [of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities]. The motion tonight doesn’t really do anything, but it shows solidarity. It puts more pressure on the Board of Trustees to let them know we want this change. We want to say we have 72,000 students on board—now it’s your move.
Notably this fall, there have been a lot of revelations about sexual harassment at the Minnesota Legislature. You’re preparing to go lobby legislators there this spring. Does this impact the message you as student leaders bring to the State Capitol?
We have a lot of conversations and trainings about how to talk with politicians and legislators. It’s a part of our transformation from student into a leader. When you understand you can request a meeting with an elected official and you’ll be listened to, it can be scary and intimidating. So we’ve done a lot of training on how to conduct phone calls, emails, letters. How to appeal to a representative’s ethos so they will listen to your message.
I am sure we are going to be talking more about the problem [of sexual harassment and assault]. We need to change our conversations on rape culture and how we talk to victims. Almost everyone you know has some association to sexual assault, harassment or rape. It’s real and raw. Even though we started this [affirmative consent] work years ago, it’s more in our face now, which means it’s a really good time to agitate people. Let’s change how we talk about it, let’s change the policies. Let’s fix this.
You have a ‘meet and confer’ meeting later in December with university administrators. What happens at those meetings and who sets the agenda?
It’s been called the Senate-Admin meeting in the past. I’m trying to change the language. Other universities use the term ‘meet and confer’ and I like that better.
For the agenda, usually we talk about what’s going on at the Student Senate. The motion we passed tonight on affirmative consent will definitely be on the next agenda. The university needs to be aware of it.
Big actions or recommendations will always be on the agenda right away. It’s usually set about a week in advance. The Dean of Students [Herbert King] will ask for agenda items.
We’ve had conversations ranging from mascots, to the greenhouse remodel, to who’s going to be the new director of Student Life? We bring what’s important to us. We build rapport between students and administrators.
Part of the essential work of the Student Senate is to weigh in on student fees. How do you feel about that responsibility?
Last year we wrote two letters to the Chancellor about increases to student fees. It’s a hard task. We are a recommending body. We negotiate, we’re at the table. As students we have to think about how flexible we can be.
We don’t want our fees to ever go up. Higher education is already a really big barrier for a lot of people. Increasing costs just makes it harder to access. In the same breath, we need money to keep campus buildings open and programs running.
It’s challenging. We do not take it lightly. I think for the first consultation letter, we talked about it for months.
We do a lot of accounting work that I never thought I would be doing as a student senator. I thought it would all be policy-based, but it’s a lot of numbers.
You’ve said it’s not an easy job, but come January, you will need at least several new Senators. Why should students apply? What will they get out of it?
A lot of experience and growth. This is my second term on Senate, and reflecting back on the amount I’ve grown as an individual in that time— it’s immense, it’s huge. I’m in a place I never imagined myself being in. I have done things I never imagined I would need to do.
It doesn’t matter where you see yourself in your career, it will help you grow and prepare for your future. My plans were to be a social worker, work in child protection services, have a family, buy a dog. Now I’m sitting here preparing to go lobby at the Legislature.
I found my voice. I’m so comfortable in these uncomfortable situations now. I can hold people in authority accountable. It amazes me. The amount I’ve learned in how the university, government and organizations work.
It’s a lot of work, it’s scary, and it’s stressful. But the payoff is worth it.