S.11 E.5: “Student Senate, Student Communities”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus Student Senate co-presidents Regina Olono Vidales and Ben Menke.
Posted on November 30th, 2021 by

Student Senate Co-Presidents Regina Olono Vidales and Ben Menke, Class of ’22, talk about their paths to Gustavus and their majors, the pandemic’s impact on students, how the Senate operates, the rewards of serving on it, some of its recent accomplishments, the student communities and opportunities that make Gustavus special, and what comes next for each of them.

S.11 E.5: “Student Senate, Student Communities”

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus. The podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College and the myriad ways that Gustavus Liberal Arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host Greg Kaster, faculty member in the Department of History.

Like other colleges and universities, Gustavus has long had a student government. As the college archives notes, the first iteration began in 1914 and it was called the Students’ Council. It was succeeded in 1919 by the Forum, which continued until 1942, when the Student Senate replaced it and has continued ever since. But what is the Gustavus Student Senate? What are its responsibilities? How does it function? And more broadly, what is the state of student government on the Gustavus campus today?

Joining me to explore these questions as well as student life generally at Gustavus are two people well positioned to know. Student Senate Co Presidents Ben Menke, and Regina Olono Vidales. Both are seniors majoring in Political Science as well as Statistics in Ben’s case, and both exemplifies so well what it means to be fully engaged in the Liberal Arts education and experience Gustavus offers its students.

I’ve been looking forward to speaking with them about their own stories and perspectives on student government and life it Gustavus. Almost two years now into the COVID 19 pandemic, and heartfelt moment for Ben and Regina, about halfway through their senior year. I know what follows would be both interesting and illuminating. So Regina and Ben, welcome to the podcast. It’s so great to have you on.

Ben Menke:

Yeah, thanks so much. It’s so great to be here.

Regina Olono:

Hi, thank you so much for having us.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, my pleasure. And thank you for taking the time at work. As you know, and profs know, we’re all very busy at this point in the semester, it’s crunch time. So thank you both so much. How are you both doing amid COVID? Are you both in person right now or do you have classes that are online or hybrid? How’s it going?

Regina Olono:

Personally, I would say that I’ve been hybrid, pretty much since COVID began. It’s really nice to be able to go back in person this semester, but I’m still online for certain classes. So I expect to be hybrid up until the moment I graduate.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. Yeah. So this is your senior year. And Ben how about you is how? Is your experience similar?

Ben Menke:

I’ve been a little bit more fortunate if you value that sort of in person experience. All of my main classes have been in person. The only one that’s online is Conditioning. But I’m still able to do my workouts by myself. So that’s fine.

Greg Kaster:

That’s good. I was online… Well you were here in March 2020. What were you, been sophomores at that point? When we had to abandon ship, so to speak. And then I was online, which I’d never done and vowed that if I ever do that I would quit, of course that was pre COVID. But it went okay, I was surprised, actually, but then it’s good to be back in person. I’m all in person now. So that feels good. Although it’s funny, in a way I miss being able to see complete faces online, which you can’t see with a mask mandate that we have, although that, I certainly support that, it’s important.

So you both are seniors and I’m just curious as always, in this podcast about your background, so whoever who’d like to start, tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you came to Gustavus. Why Gustavus?

Regina Olono:

Yeah.

Ben Menke:

I think I’d be happy… Oh, sorry.

Greg Kaster:

Go ahead Ben.

Ben Menke:

Okay. Yeah, I’d be happy to start. So I’m originally from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah.

Ben Menke:

Which is not as far away as people think. It’s just a two and a half hour drive. But what drew me to Gustavus was the small Liberal Arts college experience was something that I knew would be really valuable. And so that’s definitely what drew me to this college. And that has definitely paid off. I’ve gotten to know many of my classmates. And WiFi on the Hill has been great so far.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. Did you consider applying to Augustana in Sioux Falls or not?

Ben Menke:

Not really. I wanted to get out of Sioux Falls. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but I knew that I wanted to be somewhere else where I could really explore who I am. When I came to Gustavus I was the only person that I knew. And I think that experience definitely forced me out of my shell.

Greg Kaster:

And had you heard of Gustavus? How have you heard of Gustavus? Obviously, you’ve heard of it but how?

Ben Menke:

It’s tough to say. I want to say it was an ad online. Like how you hear about a lot of things, you just see it somewhere and it sticks in your head and you think about it more and you receive some mail, some promotional mail materials, and suddenly it’s on your list.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. Yeah, the power of advertising in higher ed does a lot of that. Regina, how about you? Tell us where you grew up and how you came to Gustavus.

Regina Olono:

Yeah, I would say I think I have more of a non traditional route. So I grew up in Arizona, and I ended up moving to Minnesota my sophomore year of high school. I went to Eden Prairie, and actually wanted to do PSEO. So my junior year, I was looking at PSEO programs and somehow I found out that Gustavus had full time PSEO enrollment for high school seniors. So I applied and I got in. And I did my senior year of high school here at Gustavus as a PSEO student.

I actually heard about it from my health teacher in high school. She had a little Gustavus banner, and I was like, “What’s a Gustavus?” And she was like, “It’s this amazing college. I have my best memories from there. I still hang out with my friends from school, like once a year.”

Greg Kaster:

So she had gone to Gustavus, it sounds like?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, so she’s an alumni. And she told me whatever I needed, she would help me apply. And yeah, I applied for the program, I got in and yeah, it was a whole 17 year old, my freshman year here.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. Yeah, Minnesota has that program. I suppose other states do too, where the PSEO where you can take college courses and get college credit too as a high school student. You’re giving me hope Regina because as you both may know, there’s a so called demographic cliff looming. There’s some debate about just how big of a cliff. 18 to 24 year olds are in shorter supply and so we’re all competing for the sample, but one population that is growing, that all colleges are competing for is the Latin X population in the southwestern United States. And I’m always thinking, “Who would come to Minnesota on a campus on a day like today where it’s so windy and cold?”

So you’re giving me hope, although maybe you didn’t have any say in the matter, your parents, I guess. I should move to you and you came along. It’s good to have you both here. So by the way, Regina, what is the high school teacher’s name? I meant to ask you that.

Regina Olono:

Yeah, it was Roxanne Myrie.

Greg Kaster:

Roxanne Myrie. Okay, I have to contact her for the podcast, too. That’s neat. I love these origin stories. And then both of you are majoring in poly sideband statistics as well. In your case, Regina, I don’t want to miss a double… Are you double majoring or is it just poly sign your case?

Regina Olono:

I’m a double minor as well.

Greg Kaster:

Go ahead. What are you monitoring?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, so I’m minoring in Public Health and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s great. Oh, that’s wonderful, great combo. There’s an alumni podcast. It was some time ago who was a bio history major who’s doing Public Health. She actually works for the Gates Foundation right now. Katie Schlagen, I’ll connect you. I’ll be sure to connect you two.

Regina Olono:

That’d be great.

Greg Kaster:

Ben, do have minors as well as the two majors?

Ben Menke:

No, I’m too busy for anything else at this point.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fine. I always say you only need one major to graduate, you don’t need two. You don’t need any minors. One of the cool things about school wherever you are, I think it’s just to be able to explore. So what drew you both to Political Science? I’m just curious. I’m always curious about what draws students to a particular major.

Ben Menke:

Yeah, I think for me, what drew me into Political Science was my interest in who makes decisions and why those decisions are made in the first place. I think a lot of people share that sense of wonder, or in some case, confusion about why things are going the way that they’re going. And being a high school debater, was definitely a formative experience for me. And getting that introduction into politics and government made me want to explore that even further.

Greg Kaster:

You want to be in the room where it happens, as they say in Hamilton, it sounds like. That’s a great answer. Regina, go ahead, what about you?

Regina Olono:

Yeah. I took actually, AP Government and AP Comparative Politics in high school. And that’s when I realized I was really into international issues and issues we’re facing in our own country. Although I did not think that was going to be my major. I actually went the pre med route freshman year. That’s quite a lot of people do.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, that’s why I’m chuckling. Yeah.

Regina Olono:

Yeah, that did not end up working out. And I took a government class with Chris Gilbert and I was like, “Yeah, this is my passion.” I think, having the lived experience as a woman of color kind of changes the way you view institutions and the way that the government works. So having the hope that there was something that I could do to help out, say my community and others around me really inspired me to go into this major.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s great. Well, you’ve both given what your ambitions are. You’re both in the right major. That’s a great major at Gustavus. Great faculty. I mean, I’ve said this before on the podcast, I’m a historian, but I’m a political junkie, I love following politics. And I think maybe I should have been a Political Science major as well, but that’s another story. Maybe in another life. So did you know each other before you ran for the Co Presidency of the Student Senate? Were you already classmates or how well did you know each other?

Ben Menke:

Yeah, I think we definitely knew each other well, before we decided to do this thing. We had a few classes together, but I think in my opinion, where I really got to know Regina was when we were both in Model United Nations.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yes, sure. Tell us a little bit about that. Regina, you were in that too, so go ahead. What’s Model UN nations at Gustavus like?

Regina Olono:

Yeah. I would say… Well also Ben and I were part of 3 Crowns together. I ended up switching after first semester, but I always knew him. He was known as a really good speaker in class. So people around campus already knew Ben Menke. But yeah, sophomore year, I joined Model UN, I ended up becoming the president junior year. Essentially, it’s just a mock model United Nations and you all work together, you’re a different country, and you work together to pass resolutions.

Every year, we do this trip to Chicago, where we go to the American Model United Nations Conference, which I would say that brings a lot of people close. So I really got to know Ben there. And I would say, up until now, we’ve continuously had classes together.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat. I was curious about your relationship and how you met. I support everything for the Co Presidents of the Student Senate to get along and know something about one another to be effective leaders.

Ben Menke:

Yeah. That definitely tends to help a little bit.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. How common is it? Do you know at Gustavus for there to be Co Presidents? I mean, is that required for the Student Senate?

Ben Menke:

Yes. Actually, the position in our constitution is labeled Co Presidents.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat.

Ben Menke:

And so it’s necessary for us Co Presidents, because as busy college students, we’re not always available to be at every meeting. And so if one of us isn’t there, the other is there to fill in.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Ben Menke:

And we actually take turns chairing the meetings.

Greg Kaster:

Neat. I did not know that. I haven’t looked at the constitution in a longtime, the Student Senate. I used to be on the Faculty Senate and I had more interaction with the Student Senate then. I’ve been on the faculty senate more than once. And it’s easy to forget that there’s a student senate too, that’s just as important. And when I was chairing the faculty senate briefly some years ago, I met with the then… I don’t remember their names, the leaders of the Student Senate just to try to build some bridges and see what we had in common as governing bodies.

But let’s turn to the Student Senate itself. Tell us a little bit about, without getting too much into the weeds. But tell us about how it functions, what its responsibilities are, what are some of the everyday issues that the Student Senate addresses? And whoever wants to jump in first. Regina, maybe you?

Regina Olono:

Yeah. So yeah, basically Student Senate, I would say it’s really just a place for us to meet and address concerns from our fellow students. Essentially, our goal is to provide a gateway for communication between students and the administration to promote an active and vibrant campus. We’re made up of different senators. We have one from each class, and then one from each hall. We also have an international student representative. So we try to bring in all the different constituent constituencies from campus.

So we meet every Monday 7.pm and back, and we just work on an agenda and try and really tackle issues that students are facing right now. I can kind of talk about some things that we’ve done recently that have been really good programs that we’ve enacted. I know Ben, if you want to talk about it a little bit, he enacted the laptop loaner program, which has been [inaudible 00:14:33].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah Ben, go ahead. I saw that. Right, explain that.

Ben Menke:

Yeah. So before I was Co President, my sophomore year, actually, I was the Technology Chair. And in that position, you’re basically in charge of recording the audio for all the meetings and making sure that the website is working, but I wanted to be a bit more involved in that position. And I knew that this was probably pre COVID pandemic, really. But it turned out being a pretty prophylactic kind of [inaudible 00:15:02].

Greg Kaster:

Good timing. Yes.

Ben Menke:

Very great timing. I wanted to meet with Gustavus Technology Services to try to implement some sort of laptop loaner program. I knew that they had a pilot program that they were working with, but I hadn’t heard of anyone using it. And I wanted to know that anyone who wanted a laptop to fill their technology needs was able to access one. And so I got the ball rolling on that. And it took a couple years for us to have these discussions with GTs and get the budgets worked out. But our Tech Chair last year, and this year, her name is Abby Doren. She got this figured out and all of a sudden we have $40,000 invested in laptop laptops that are available to be checked out by any student for as long as an entire semester.

Greg Kaster:

Wow, that’s fantastic. I did not know the details. That’s excellent. That’s really great work and clearly important. Gustavus prides itself on being one of the better wired campuses around. But what good is that if you don’t have access, right? You don’t have a laptop. That’s excellent. Regina were going to mention some other achievements?

Regina Olono:

Yeah. So a lot of people in the dorms this year received compost bins. That was an initiative that we passed last year, so that we could bring it this year. But we knew, one of our things is environmental sustainability. And we had the opportunity to be able to fund these compost bins in every single dorm room on campus, as well as reenacted the first year gender neutral housing. So that’s in its first year, it’s been going pretty well. We’ve also done-

Greg Kaster:

Where is that? Is that in a dorm? Where’s that housing?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, it’s an Co ed. So they have their own section. We made it part of our platform to expand this to other dorms on campus.

Greg Kaster:

Fantastic. And I’m sorry, I interrupted you. What else are you going to add to that? So you’ve done the [inaudible 00:17:06].

Regina Olono:

We’ve also done the electronic newspaper readership program, so students have access to different newspaper, access online for free.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you.  That is so important. But that’s another issue. I want students to read newspapers, whether online or not. So thank you. Yeah, that’s wonderful. And then what else more? Were you going to say something else?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, I was going to say I’m really excited for this one. But we were able to get free menstrual products in the Campus center. That’s an initiative, Students for Reproductive Freedoms has been working on since my sophomore year, and they brought it to Senate and we were lucky enough that when we were in the position, we were able to help guide this and get this along and passed. So now we have free menstrual products in the campus in our bathrooms,

Greg Kaster:

Which is no small thing. I podcasted with, do you know Emily Falk? You probably know her. I think she was involved.

Regina Olono:

Yeah. They lead the initiative.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, Emily talked about that in the podcast. Maybe that was a year ago or so. And it’s fantastic. And Ben, were you going to say something as well? Jump in.

Ben Menke:

Yeah, this might make you happy. We actually include the Mankato Free Press in that package of newspaper access.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Ben Menke:

I think we’re working on getting the St. Peter Herald as well.

Greg Kaster:

Nice. What does it include? It includes the New York Times right or not? Does it include… I’m trying to remember. The Twin Cities paper?

Ben Menke:

Yes. The New York Times, The Star Tribune and USA Today.

Greg Kaster:

USA Today, that’s the one.

Ben Menke:

And Mankato Free Press Right.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. No, it’s excellent. I was just having this conversation with a… I was just curious. I teach a course this semester, Recent US, which needs to be retitled because it’s used to be… Recent US was 1945 to 1980. Now it’s 2021. Anyway, I was asking the students whether they read newspapers now? Actually what I asked is just where do they get their news. And virtually no one… Well no one in the class reads a print paper. But a few mentioned reading the paper online, which is… I said, “I’ll take it.”

I think that’s a really important program. My wife Kate, when she taught at Gustavus, she retired a few years ago. She ran a taught her first term seminar called Reading the New York Times and just trying to introduce students to that newspaper and just to reading newspapers, and consuming news. So anyway, all good stuff. And maybe we can circle back to some of that. I’m just curious more, how many student senators are there all together?

Ben Menke:

So it varies. I think there’s a total of 25 positions available. But not all of them are full at the same time. And that number might be wrong too.

Greg Kaster:

So a couple of dozen.

Ben Menke:

But sometimes we don’t have a representative say for Prairie View or Arbor View. Nothing against those halls, but we just don’t tend to get a lot of candidates from there. But the elections for Co-ed and complex are almost always fairly competitive.

Greg Kaster:

Well, that’s what I want to stress that, then you’ve made the point that these are elected positions. And in your case, both of you when you were running as Co Presidents, did you have opponents or not?

Ben Menke:

No, we actually didn’t have any opponents that were declared candidates. We heard of some people are running a writing campaign. But otherwise, we basically ran unopposed which is either good news or bad news. Good news, because nobody thought that there would be… Nobody wanted to challenge us, but also bad news because what does that say about how interested folks are in running this organization?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Ben Menke:

And that kind of critical and honest, reflection, I think is really important, as we’re moving into this year, and making sure that students see that Senate is an important organization. We want people to aspire to these positions and to have some say over their student government.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Ben Menke:

But that’s commonly an issue.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. And that’s an issue on all campuses. I mean, student governments standing or influence, sort of waxes and wanes, depending on what’s going on both on campus and of course, off campus, as well. But I did want to ask you both about your own… You’ve kind of touched on this in a way earlier. But each of you, what drew you? Is this the first time you have held an elected office? I’m curious about that, or were you doing something similar in high school? What drew you to the student government at Gustavus originally? Regina, you want to take it first?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, personally, I would say I was never really involved in high school. I had only ever done things like Key Club, more volunteer work. But I would say it was my sophomore year, somebody… I think the position opened up for class of 2022 representative and I think I seriously just had a friend go, “Hey, you’d be great for this. You should run.” And I’m like, “Really? What his Student Senate?” And then they told me about it and I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ll run in.” Yeah, I joined sophomore year, and I’ve been part of it ever since.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so great. You both know your Political Science majors and you follow the news. That’s often how a candidate becomes a candidate, right? Someone says, “You’d be good at…” I was speaking with an alum who representative Samantha Vang, who’s in the Minnesota State House. I think she’s one of the… Not the first but one of several women among women elected to the state legislature in Minnesota and same sort of thing. She was involved in something and someone said, “You’d make a good candidate. Why don’t you consider this.” And there she is. Ben what about you?

Ben Menke:

I became interested in Student Senate during my first year, because I was in Co-ed, and I would often find myself thirsty. And, unfortunately, Co-ed has about 450 residents, but at the time only had one water fountain all the way down on the first floor.

Greg Kaster:

Oh my God.

Ben Menke:

And so that was a major issue for me, and many of my friends, and I decided to become a candidate for Student Senate to represent Co-ed on a one issue platform, and that was getting more water fountains.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. And it worked, I assume?

Ben Menke:

Oh, definitely. Yes. So I was elected to Senate. And at the first meeting, I proposed that we fund more water fountains in the res halls specifically for my constituents and Co-ed. And unfortunately, that proposal was defeated by one vote. And I was pretty defeated by it. But rather than give up on it, I worked with Physical Plant, I worked with our Dean of students, and we arranged a plan where actually the college would fund 14 new water fountains over the next four years to be installed everywhere around campus. I’m not sure how many of them have actually been implemented due to COVID and all those restrictions, but I know we definitely have some new water fountains in many of the res halls. So that started my interest in Senate and since that I’ve just become more and more interested.

Greg Kaster:

Well, you I can tell you, you have a career as a mayor and certainly in the city council. Collect the garbage, shovel the streets, right? Seriously that kind of on the ground local grassroots. I mean, how basic an issue, right? But how important.

Ben Menke:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

So congrats-

Ben Menke:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

On that. Yeah. And as a big water drinker… I mean, we’re lucky in [inaudible 00:25:15] here we have two fountains. A taller one and a lower down on the wall on every floor. Anyway, bravo. All the things you mentioned. And so you both have… Maybe you Ben, especially but have touched on I think Regina. I’m sorry, I don’t remember who said it. But funding. I’m just curious if you could say a little bit more about that. How is the Student Senate funded?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, so we’re actually funded through the student government fee. It goes on everybody’s financial aid. I believe it’s like $180, and students on it receives about… I think it was like $86 per students. So that all goes into this really, really big budget that we set every year. So we start the year off with a pretty large contingency. And we’re in charge of allocating all of that to all of the student orgs on campus.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Regina Olono:

We fund every single student organization, including DLC, so we actually fund DLC and through that they also fund the other student organizations.

Greg Kaster:

Explain DLC what that means.

Regina Olono:

Yeah, so DLC is the Diversity Leadership Council. And under their umbrella, they have around I think, 50 student organizations that they fund themselves. So that’s kind of a subsection of the student org space. But at the end of the day, we fund DLC, and they can fund other student organizations that are kind of focused under the umbrella of diversity, inclusion. So yeah, it’s really great.

Greg Kaster:

What would you say… Round figures, what is the budget, a typical year? The total budget?

Ben Menke:

Every year, we start with around $400,000.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Ben Menke:

And the vast majority of that money is used up during our spring budgeting process. So that’s where every student organization comes and request some money from us. Our finance committee is just super busy during that time going through each proposal carefully and looking for where we can most efficiently allocate our money. So yeah, as Regina was saying, we fund many, many, many student orgs. Almost every organization you can join us funded by Student Senate. Even ones you might not expect, like club sports are funded by Student Senate.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s interesting. Thank you, because that’s a question I’ve had… I never made the effort to answer. I’ve always wondered about that. I have a current student who does club hockey, and I kind of wondered about their relationship, the clubs, where the funding comes from. So that’s interesting. I mean, that’s a huge responsibility, obviously as you just suggested for the Senate, but also, especially for that finance committee and great experience too I would imagine to acquire.

So that is encouraging. To me, that sounds like a good amount of money. I’m sure you can always use more. But that’s better than 50,000 or 100,000. And there are so many organizations on campus. I don’t have to tell you that student organizations is one of them. I mean, that’s an that’s pro and con, I suppose. And maybe we could just detour a little bit here and talk about some of those, aside from Student Senate that you’re familiar with.

So Regina, I read that you were involved… I don’t know if it’s still exist, if you’re still with Ignite. An organization called Ignite? Tell us a little bit about that, even if it’s no longer in existence, what that involved?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, we’re still active. I actually started that organization last year during the pandemic. Somebody reached out to me. It was a previous alumni, Menolly Bhakta. She was also a Students Senate Co President two years ago. She reached out to me, she was working with the international organization. Essentially, we work towards helping young women or women identifying folks to achieve their political power.

One of our main goals is to get gender equity within politics. So we try and help women who either want to probably run in the future but are still students or women who want to start a campaign now, we would try and support them. So we have a small chapter here on campus. And the way that I’ve framed the way that the Gustavus chapter works is kind of being involved in big issues on campus.

So we’ve gone hand in hand with some of the big issues that have faced this campus and we try to just be a voice and be activists for the community here. This year has been a little different. I think we went really hard last year during the pandemic just because we had so free time, but as we transition to in person, it’s been a little difficult to kind of going through these in person meetings.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. You just made me think that’s another interesting angle about the pandemic. I mean, to what extent, the impact of the… It’s obvious, but I hadn’t thought really thought about the impact of the pandemic, not just on the teaching, but also on all the co-curricular stuff. If you’re online or not, but it sounds like you’ve said the Gustavus Chapter, so this is a national organization?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, it’s a national organization.

Greg Kaster:

I love the name, it’s a great name and I didn’t know about until I was reading up on you for this podcast. Maybe we come back to some of the issues you mentioned. Ben what about you? Are you involved… I know you’re you’re both busy enough already. God knows what the students [inaudible 00:30:51]. Are you involved in any other co-curricular activities or organizations or sports or choir or either one of you? Any of those things?

Ben Menke:

This yeah, I’ve taken a step back in terms my involvements, I was a part of the speech and debate team, Model UN, the Environmental Action Coalition, but right now I spend my time outside of class when I’m doing activities, either with Student Senate, or it’s my employment in the Gustavus Writing Center.

Greg Kaster:

Fantastic.

Ben Menke:

Which has been very fulfilling.

Greg Kaster:

I’m a huge fan. I’m a good friend of Eric [inaudible 00:31:27], who directs it. That’s great. I love that. Writing, I take my FTS there all the time.

Ben Menke:

Go ahead. And I’m actually coming to you from the Writing Center right now, that’s where I’m recording.

Greg Kaster:

Excellent. Let’s put in a plug for the Writing Center Gustavus. Go ahead, put it in a plug. What is it? What does it do? It’s so important.

Ben Menke:

Yeah. We have about 20 staff members from about 25 different majors, who are all dedicated to improving the writing skills of any student on our campus. So we’re available Sunday through Thursday nights. And you can book appointments with us. If you look up our website, we offer in person appointments, we offer virtual appointments, whatever is most convenient for you. We want to help you become better writers. So that’s my writing center plug. But there’s another student organization involvement that I had that I think ties well into what Regina was saying with Ignite.

So, last fall, fall of 2020, there was an election, as you know, and Gustavus was very focused on improving student turnout for that election. So the fall 2019 we formed this organization called the Voter Engagement Team. It was a group of students, faculty and administrative staff that work together. We put a budget together, hired some voting ambassadors among the student body. I was fortunate to be one of them and we basically just tried to organize the student body. We hosted a registration drive, we basically just created these online resources for students and Ignite was a huge part of us getting to vote out-.

Greg Kaster:

That was fantastic.

Ben Menke:

Without election. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Bravo.

Ben Menke:

So we put an action plan together and we followed it as closely as possible. COVID ruined everything but we kept going and we ended up… Actually, we just found out the turnout for that election, which is very exciting. It turns out 82% of students turned out during the 2020 election.

Greg Kaster:

That is fantastic. Congratulations. Wow. That’s up there is just- [crosstalk 00:33:38]. Go ahead.

Ben Menke:

It’s seriously just three points short of the highest voting rate in the country, which turns out is St. Olaf. That was a bummer. [inaudible 00:33:50] 84%, and the average I believe, was 66%.

Greg Kaster:

Wow, that is fun ten times. Most listeners will know, but in case you don’t, St. Olaf is that other ELCA school, the Lutheran affiliated school that the Norwegians in Northfield… Anyway, wow, that’s fantastic. Just hearing 80% in… We’re talking about this checks so called Jacksonian period in US history in my survey course. Eventually, in the 19th century, and this was men only, of course, white men only, by the way. The turnout was incredibly high. It would be at times into the 80s. So that’s just fantastic. Wow. And I love the connection to Ignite.

This leads nicely into my next question, which is about issues, what are what are some of the issues on campus among students? At times what a professor, what a faculty might think is an issue is not necessarily where the students had. Is it for example, the environment and climate change? I’m just curious, your sense of that. Not that you speak for all students, of course, neither one of you. Regina, you want to take that one?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, I would say just like everywhere else, there’s always going to be variety of different issues.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Regina Olono:

Yeah, we’ve looked into environmental sustainability on campus. Right now, our chair for that is Juliet White, and they’ve been in charge of rolling out those compost bins. We got some feedback and found out that not everybody was able to fund the compost bags that they need for the bins. So we actually just passed another budget for that so that we could ensure that students are using those bins. So we’re going to roll that out during J term, give out some free bags.

I think it’s important to mention that last year, given everything that went down, anti racism became pretty big and [crosstalk 00:35:49] really important to Student Senate. They created the anti racism and racial justice ad hoc committee. Ben and I made that a permanent standing committee this year to ensure that we’re keeping an eye out for issues on campus and making sure that students of color have the opportunity to come and talk to us regarding racist incidents on campus and stuff. We also created an Indigenous Relations ad hoc committee this year as well since that was a pretty big issue on campus last year.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. The last two in particular are incredibly important to me and my colleagues, to all of us, but to those of us who are historians. Actually one of my colleagues, Professor Marco Cabrera Gesprek is on the President’s Council for Indigenous Relations. The stuff around George Floyd’s murder, the way colleges and universities responded. Then of course, there’s the backlash to that. I’m just curious, have you experienced that? Has the student senate experienced that? Are there students who are saying, “Enough already, let’s quit talking about race.” Or not? There’s this whole movement off campus… I would argue to silence, teaching about race at the high school level. Even some cruelty, the reaction is so called Critical Race Theory teaching. Are most students on board with these initiatives, you think or indifferent? What’s your sense of that?

Regina Olono:

I wouldn’t say that they’re pretty on board. We’ve had a lot of people be passionate about the subject. I know last year, the chair for the anti racism and racial justice committee, Alexis Gayatri played a huge role. She was part of our listening sessions, she worked really closely with Ron White to get feedback from students. I would say pretty strongly-

Greg Kaster:

Sorry, Ron White’s a trustee, right? Is that right? Who’s African-

Regina Olono:

Yeah. I believe he is now the president for the President’s Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Regina Olono:

I was going say as a student of color, I think a lot of us haven’t let this issue go. And we’ve seen campus climate get a little bit better. But personally, freshmen and sophomore year, we had more of this hidden, small microaggressions, or small incidents of racism. But up until George Floyd’s murder, is when I think we really felt that we could speak out about it without, honestly caring at this point. Without caring what students thought.

We went through these listening sessions, and we were honest about our experiences on campus and how we haven’t been treated super fairly. So yeah, I would say, I think that momentum has still continued. Right now we’re facing a lot of burnout. So I would say it hasn’t been as a hot topic as it used to be. But I would say at least for POC students on campus, this still remains a pretty big issue. One of the main reasons why I ran for Senate Co President is just so that we could have a person of color in office making sure that we don’t get left behind.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I love that about both of you. Just the fact that at least the current Co Presidents, you’ve got a male and how you identify your… But you’ve got two very different people in all important ways. I think the college, like all schools, we go on a lot about diversity, and I think it’s hard, especially around… We really have still, correct me if I’m wrong… Phillip Brian in English was an alum but we need more black faculty, Gustavus has had trouble.

And I don’t mean this as a criticism, it’s just a fact. Trouble recruiting. You can’t retain until you recruit. I would argue black faculty and Latin X faculty, especially… Anyway, better on the latter than the former. But yeah, I wanted to ask you, Regina, and you’ve touched on this. What your experience has been as a student of color? It sounds like it’s gotten better than it was early on. Is that a fair summary of what you were just saying?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, definitely. I think now that people are feeling a little bit more comfortable having these conversations surrounding race. I think that’s something freshmen and sophomore year people were like, “Let’s not talk about it.” But sometimes we would have campus safety, maybe singling out black students or stuff like that and we never really felt comfortable talking about it. But I would also say, being in a position like this has also opened the door for me to be able to help recruit people. I took part of helping find the new campus safety director. He’s a black man. So that was something really important to me when we were having these conversations, having somebody that wouldn’t actively target students based on their race, but rather, what the incidents are on campus, and I was also a part of the VPEI search committee last year.

Greg Kaster:

Which is exciting. Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that.

Regina Olono:

Yeah. So we met for, I think it was like a month or two and we looked at a variety of applicants to be the new president for this council. We all were pretty much on the same page that Doug Thompson was amazing. And he really connected with students. So we now have him overseeing the Center for Inclusive Excellence and talking with President Bergman. I know we just feel really comfortable having you know another black man in charge, and you can come to him and rant to him and Tom [inaudible 00:41:43]. We’re just a little family in the center and we just all talk about our experiences there. So yeah, it’s been really amazing.

Greg Kaster:

Incredibly important. Yeah. I have yet to podcast with Doug. He came to our history department meeting. We could go so just online. But great guy. So excited and have a vice president. He’s a vice president. He has his seat at the table with the President and part of the president’s cabinet. So really important. Because I think, we can go on and on, especially at colleges, but also within the business world, you can go on and on and talk about so called Race Relations a term actually, I cannot stand, because it suggests that it’s all just relational, interpersonal and of course that’s not how we’re going to address structural inequities.

At least I don’t think whether it’s around race, gender, class. But anyway, all good work. Congratulations on that. We’re excited about Doug. Ben, do you want to jump in on any of that or other issues that you sense are uppermost in students minds on campus today?

Ben Menke:

Yeah, absolutely. I’ll touch a bit on the social justice aspect of our work, which is the key to our work. Making it an inclusive campus where everyone can feel like they can succeed and become who they want to be. And this personnel change, who we have doing the work of the college is extremely important. Because that is the group of people that is going to be reflecting on what we’re doing and continuing this reckoning that we’re having at Gustavus and that applies to anti racism and also this Indigenous Relations aspect of it which has become very, very important over the last two years or so.

The renaming of the arboretum to the Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College. We felt like that was a great symbolic move towards becoming an inclusive campus and we’re fortunate not to have faced the backlash that some other institutions have faced. I think for that I credit it to just the amount of discussion that we had about that decision.

Greg Kaster:

I agree. [crosstalk 00:44:02]. Go ahead. I’m sorry.

Ben Menke:

I was just saying including everyone’s voice.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, actually on my list here, right in front of you is going to be one of my next question. But go ahead, explain what went on around the Gustavus Arboretum, formerly called the Carl Linnaeus Arboretum. Go ahead Ben, tell us a little bit about that process and what’s transpired.

Ben Menke:

Sure. So personally, I wasn’t a part of this process as it was starting. It was a grassroots movement led by some very amazing students that sent out a petition to rename the arboretum as it was named after Carl Linnaeus who was a Swedish biologist. He was most famous for inventing the system of taxonomy and classifying species by their Latin names. But at the same time, he also took that classification system and applied it to humans and the racial differences that he saw and it was just a very gross form of scientific racism [crosstalk 00:45:14].

Greg Kaster:

Especially people coming after Linnaeus, I would argue, who really took it and applied it to scientific racism. Yeah. Go ahead. And so there was that process. And that’s cool. So it began as a grassroots initiative from within the student body. And then long story short, there was this… I agree with you just from what I saw as an outsider faculty member receiving notices about the committee, whatever it was called, the committee councils, its deliberations, how careful they were and thorough they were. But tell us a little bit about where it ended up. So the arboretum has been renamed.

Ben Menke:

Yes, so it was renamed after a vote by the Board of Trustees. So the deliberation circle put together a list of [inaudible 00:46:01].

Greg Kaster:

That’s what it was called, thank you. Yes.

Ben Menke:

Yeah. And they went with just the Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College noting that it might be inappropriate to name this land after as an individual and just keeping in with avoiding that sort of controversy. I believe that this decision was well received. Outside of Gustavus I can’t say a whole lot, because the culture war is a very common lens through which people see things. So I can’t speak for what people outside of Gustavus have seen, but people within the campus community have been supportive, if they’ve said anything at all.

Greg Kaster:

That’s all great. I thought it was a really great… I was agnostic on it in some ways. If I had to vote, I would have voted to change the name. I was happy with that outcome but also want people to recognize that it’s in some ways more… Folks who come after Linnaeus and what they do with his system. But way beyond Gustavus, even the Linnaeus society in Sweden, they’re wrestling with this. So I’m just very proud of…

Again, looking at it from the margins, from the outside, very proud of the process and happy with the outcome. That’s good to know about that, no one is sitting in demanding that Linnaeus name be… Good to know. So you’re all doing in the Senate, doing such important work. This is maybe it’s in some ways an unfair question, because how the heck could you answer? But I’m just curious. I’m curious for a number of reasons, including one being that I’m now back in person and I just wonder, your own sense, maybe both thinking about yourself, but just your own sense of the mood on campus generally.

Are students really preoccupied, burnt out, sick of COVID, all of the above, are they really anxious about climate change and it seems like how little progresses is being… I’m just curious if you can speak to that in any way. Again, stipulating you do not speak for the entire student body, of course.

Regina Olono:

I would say that right now we are facing a huge problem of burnout. I think the transition back to in person has really taken a toll on a lot of students. I keep getting a lot of students coming up to me and just saying, “I can’t do this anymore. I forgot how hard going to class in person everyday was.” And going to, especially student organizations in person, those take up a lot of your time. And I think when we were online via zoom, you were able to do more and take more on your plate. But as we go back to in person, you find yourself having to prioritize, obviously school and some other main organizations.

But yeah, I think that might be the biggest issue on campus right now. Everyone’s really, really tired. But I’m hoping that hopefully in the spring, we can turn that around, maybe get used to being in person [crosstalk 00:49:18] semester to relearn social interactions if that makes sense.

Greg Kaster:

It does. It makes a lot of sense. Ben, what do you think?

Ben Menke:

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of burnout as well. I would agree with what Regina is saying. And I think for a lot of people, including myself, that comes down to relearning old habits. Habits are just incredibly important for feeling comfortable and keeping one sanity throughout the day. And a year and a half or two years of this pandemic has definitely disrupted many of those habits.

Greg Kaster:

Go ahead.

Ben Menke:

Sorry. And then going back to what you were saying at the beginning of the podcast about only seeing half of people’s faces. I support masks and I support the requirement in the buildings. But there’s no getting around the fact that it’s difficult to be as social. But coming back to in person learning has really made up for a lot of that. No more zoom meetings as much as you can avoid it, and really bringing people together again. That’s been a huge part of our platform and our commitment as leaders on campus is bringing this community back together.

Greg Kaster:

Well, everything you both just said, I just want to underscore. I couldn’t agree more, including the point Ben you made about habits and burnout. I did not think I would feel burnout. I think a lot of the process, maybe all of us, everybody to some degree or another. And you both said it really well. Yeah, I forgot what it’s like to do all this stuff in person as opposed to, “I’m online and now I can shut off the damn laptop.”

I was able to concentrate in ways. I forgot just how, in the course of a day you’re… It’s probably true of students too. It’s hard to find long stretches of time. For me they come either early in the morning or late at night. But there’s also that thing called sleep we all need. How do you negotiate that. But I’m with you, Regina, I know you are too Ben, the spring. When spring comes, things always look better.

But I’m proud. I’m also proud of Gustavus for how it’s handled itself amid this God awful challenge, and in some ways a challenge far worse than the tornadoes of 98 which were finite. They came, they went and the destruction was there. But this is ongoing and the toll it’s taking on all of us. I want to conclude by asking you to talk a little bit about what you each think makes Gustavus distinctive or special. All colleges wrestle with this. How can we encapsulate what’s so special or distinctive about us? I’d like to ask you to take a stab at that. Ben, you want to go ahead?

Ben Menke:

Yeah, I can try it. I think what makes Gustavus stand out is just the sheer range of communities that are available for students. You have various affinity groups, you have many activities, whether it’s [inaudible 00:52:42] life or, it could be a big partner, a little partner or any sort of language club, our student senate, student government. There’s just so many opportunities to form communities. And that’s what I think makes Gustavus stand out as they embrace that and they celebrate those communities as they’re being created.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, and let me just, before turning to you Regina to quickly interject. I will confess that when I did not attend a liberal arts college, and I wasn’t that, I wasn’t at all active in anything, I just studied at Northern Illinois University. And when I first came to Gustavus in 86, I was a faculty member, put off by that. And sometimes, I think we can all agree, students can get a little too busy with the co-curricular.

But I’ve really come to appreciate the importance of that in Gustavus, whatever we want to call it. I said in my intro, Gustavus experience, it sounds like a cliche or an ad or something. In one’s education, and I was recently podcasting with an alum named Peter Fosse who grew up on a dairy farm near and then came to Gustavus Classics major, no a Classics Prof, really distinguished Classic Prof at DePaul University in Indiana.

And he made the point, which I thought was really astute, just underscoring. We just said that about just how important it was for someone like him. He was shy and introvert to come to Gustavus and be involved, not just in academic work but in what we now call co-curricular and learning how to be social or how to interact with people. That’s no small thing. That’s an important skill in life. Regina, go ahead. What about you? What do you think makes Gustavus distinctive or special?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, I think pretty much Ben said exactly what I was going to say personally. Well, first of all, there’s a lot of opportunities here at Gustavus. For example, since I first got here, the PSEO program made it a really affordable option to A, begin college but to do that early as well. They have pretty good financial aid, I would say, especially for students of color. I know that’s why a lot of us decide to go here because we do end up receiving more aid than we would in other institutions.

And honestly, I would also say the administration is pretty receptive. I think that’s something that I realized after the discussion surrounding the arboretum. President Bergman really wanted to listen to student input and I think that brought up also issues where students didn’t feel comfortable talking to administration, or they felt like we didn’t have a voice. But the more I’ve gotten to work with President Bergman, I’ve realized that they were actually really receptive to feedback and they want to hear from us. There was just, I would say, mostly miscommunication in which we thought we couldn’t come to them. But it’s amazing that we can.

I would also say, community, it’s been huge. And that’s what I would say made me stay on campus. A lot of students especially of color end up transferring or they end up not liking Gustavus, but it’s pretty amazing because we found a community within ourselves, and especially for those of us that are really involved, doing activist work on campus. You find this really amazing community of people within your student organizations, especially your different identities. The LGBTQ, students of color, everybody has these own groups and you can find your way towards these groups.

And I think having friends and colleagues that are really here to just support your journey has really helped me in my college career. I don’t think I could have done it without them. They’re the reason I keep going. My community, I love it. I love how close we all get working together. I would say Senate cabinet too. We all spent a lot of time together. I would say I’ve gotten really close to Ben and share the same vision towards making Gustavus this even better place. So yeah, I think it’s a great place to find yourself and find people that share your own values.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, again, all well said both of you, and just coming at it from a faculty member. I see that, I appreciate it much more than when I was first starting at Gustavus and thought everything had to be academic, academic. What is all this co curricular stuff? But all well said. And I think having that support… Regina, just the fact that you are… Are you the first Latin x Student Senate President or Co President? I have no idea. I’m not sure. But just the fact that you’re there and students can see you. You alluded to this much earlier in our conversation. But that’s hugely important.

And I was just going to add. I’m of the age where the administration is always the bad guys. We’re the bad guys. But I think that’s when I was a student. But that’s not really the case here. I’m still sometimes a little skeptical because of that history I have. But still, it does seem to me that President Rebecca Bergman and Dean of Students, Jonas Van Hecke, they really value… Well, I know they value the students, there’s no doubt about that, but value your input and that it’s not as confrontational or antagonistic, is maybe the word I’m looking for, as it historically it has been, and I think even at Gustavus sometimes in the past and certainly in other schools.

So with that said, you’re both seniors, and I just want to conclude by offering you each a chance to say a little bit about what your plans are to the extent that you have plans. It’s okay if you don’t. Ben, you have some exciting news you can share with us, why don’t we start with you? Go ahead.

Ben Menke:

Yes, I am beginning the exciting and joyous process of applying to law school. I guess not beginning, I submitted my applications last week. I’m applying to quite a few schools on the east coast and the Midwest. But yesterday, I just got accepted to the University of Virginia Law School, which is very exciting.

Greg Kaster:

Bravo.

Ben Menke:

Thank you. And hopefully I hear back from other schools soon but I know it’s a long process. But I’ll take this piece of good news and I’ll stay with it until I hear back from other schools.

Greg Kaster:

Exciting.

Ben Menke:

Yes. I want to… Sorry.

Greg Kaster:

No, go ahead. I was going to ask you what kind of law you’d like to do or where you see yourself going after the law degree?

Ben Menke:

Yes, I was just going to say I’m really interested in voting rights. My work on the voter engagement team inspired me to pursue a career in election law. It’s a very, very important topic and I personally believe that voting rights are a critical issue of our time, especially when they’re under attack in all 50 states, it seems like-

Greg Kaster:

I could not agree more, and I will be emailing you Ben, because we’re going to be turning to that in my recent US with a book. But I’m going to ask, if it works, you come to my class and talk about that work on campus. Incredibly important. Are you familiar with Mark Elias’ work for the… He’s a lawyer who’s just been doing incredible work around this. You’ll need to connect with him at some point.

Ben Menke:

Yes. Absolutely. Here’s my role model.

Greg Kaster:

You know him. You know who he is. Yeah. He’s amazing. That’s exciting. And again, congrats on UVA Law School. Regina, what about you? What are you thinking of doing?

Regina Olono:

Yeah, so I’m also thinking law school. I had to make the tough decision of either going right after college or maybe taking a year off. And seeing as I started early, and I’m feeling the burnout, I decided to actually take the year off.

Greg Kaster:

Good for you.

Regina Olono:

I currently have a fellowship with Needles, Minnesota.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fantastic. Wow.

Regina Olono:

Yeah. To our next place non profit. And I’m really enjoying the work. We do a lot of organizing and canvassing, and I’m hoping to either get a full time job with them or find another nonprofit but it’s also an election year. So I was lucky enough to have worked on the Dan Freehand for Congress campaign. And that really mobilized me and I realized that I actually enjoy a lot of campaign work. So yeah, I’m hoping to do some caucusing with the Needles and hopefully joining another campaign for these midterm elections.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. I’m so excited. Both of you. I’m sorry go ahead. Regina, what were you just saying?

Regina Olono:

Although I’m not too sure what will end up happening over the year, but it’s a plan, and then hopefully law school.

Greg Kaster:

You’re both making me smile and you’re making me feel so proud to be a Gustavus professor. Wonderful work both of you. Incredibly important. That’s exciting about Needles, and who knows Regina, maybe you’re in Minnesota running for office one day, I’ll get the chance to vote for you. Who knows? But that’s super exciting. Congratulations on all of that to you both. Best of luck. Thanks for everything you’re doing as student leaders. I know sometimes it must feel like it’s not noticed or not noticed enough by faculty, I’m sure, and your peers, but just you’re doing really important work and making a difference.

So thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedules to podcast with me. And folks listening, contact Regina, contact Ben Ryan, if you’re thinking about coming to Gustavus so they’ll tell you everything you need to know as you can hear. So take good care both of you. I don’t think we’ve met in person. This is ridiculous. We need to get together at some point. My treat at River Rock before you graduate anyway.

Regina Olono:

Yes.

Ben Menke:

That would be amazing.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, we’ll do it. I’m really proud of you both. Take good care. Have a good rest of the day.

Regina Olono:

Thank you.

Ben Menke:

Thank you so much. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

Greg Kaster:

You’re welcome. My pleasure. Bye. Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matt Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing. Gustavus graduate Will Clark, Class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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