Guest Opinion: Jess Wojciechowski, 2021-22 ASUU Student Body President

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Paige Gardner

University of Utah campus. (Photo by Paige Gardner | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Jess Wojciechowski

 

In Feb. of 2021, I was elected as the University of Utah Student Body President in the first all-female presidency, also openly identifying as queer. At first, everyone seemed to be incredibly excited for us. We got more love than I could have imagined and I felt supported by the U. I got to work right away and quickly understood that I would spend my presidency fighting generations of institutional power and corruption, which will continue to harm students.

It was the unexpected parts of this job no one could prepare me for that were the hardest.

After I was inaugurated I sat on the Board of Trustees, which was charged with participating in the selection of the new U president. I was the only student on the board, and my concerns with the process and the candidates were repeatedly ignored. I was told I should just be happy to be there.

As the only student Trustee, I advocated against a 6% tuition increase at the U, demanding students’ basic needs be met before we add any additional costs to their lives. The several hundred dollar increases per semester are some students’ groceries, rent and daycare costs. But this institution supports glamorous new buildings instead of the people and services that occupy them. It’s not something that will hurt the children of the Trustees, but it will make Utah’s flagship school more inaccessible to students from underrepresented backgrounds.

After voicing these concerns, the board immediately turned around and voted for the increase. I was the only “no” vote.

This example reflects my experience being in spaces of power at the U. I constantly reminded stakeholders that they are here for students. No student should have to struggle financially and emotionally to pursue a degree and get one step closer to reaching their dreams in a state that champions fiscal responsibility and accessibility. Unfortunately, the U’s administration and Trustees are out of touch. When I raised these concerns, the response was that “this is just the college experience.” As if I, a student, didn’t already know the struggles of being a college student today.

Students are willing to sacrifice to receive a high-quality education. Many of us move far from home, work multiple jobs and raise families, all while balancing an intense course load. Making the U more expensive is a slap in the face and tells students they don’t belong unless they can afford it.

As Student Body President, I was paid well below the poverty line and had to work two other jobs to meet rent and pay for groceries while also being a full-time student. People wonder why few students run for elected positions when those exact positions are systematically structured against low-income students. The U will never sustain representation of diverse communities until they can actually support them. Every single student must be supported, and if I as the Student Body President wasn’t supported, I can’t imagine how the majority of our student population feels. And as for the students like me who sacrifice themselves to hold these positions, we leave the year burnt out as a result of being ignored and exploited.

I am dedicated to staying true to the students I was elected by to be a strong advocate for my campaign platform: “accessibility, affordability, safety, and solidarity.” I vividly remember June of 2021, the beginning of my burnout from being president, just 4 months into my tenure. From there, it only got worse. In this position, you are expected to be available to everyone 24/7. Truthfully, my mental health has never been worse. Because of the nature of this position, I have struggled immensely with depression and anxiety. The lowest moments in my life have occurred in the past year and I will need to spend much of my life recovering from that. And I know that if I had more money or the popular opinion among administrators, my mental health would not have faltered so much. I would do it all again for the students, but I should not have had to make such a large sacrifice to my well-being for this position.

After my term, I can say with absolute confidence that the U as an institution does not care about its students. There are countless people at the U that work tirelessly to support students and their needs, but the institution as a whole has one priority: money. They care more about being a global superpower and brand than supporting students who are here now, struggling.

In the coming years, you will see more buildings pop up (not to mention their extreme cost and lack of need given the adaptation of hybrid class schedules). You will see marketing that the University of Utah is the best institution in the world. But on the flip side, you will likely see more student deaths, reports of poor mental health and students struggling financially, because the U cares more about generating capital than focusing on students’ safety and well-being.

The pattern will continue forever unless the system is completely rebuilt — the power structure, including the Board of Trustees, should be filled with students other than the Student Body President, alumni, community stakeholders and others that are genuinely representative of our campus population. This likely won’t happen because of those who hold the most power at our university.

To you reading this, I hope you know that I poured my entire being into this position and was a strong advocate for students at every table I had the privilege of being at. I tried my best, and that is what matters. And to the U administration, I hope that you learned from me and will continue to learn from students and move your focus towards them. We can’t be the best university until the massive institutional problems we have are addressed and sustainable action is taken.

 

— Jess Wojciechowski, 2021-2022 ASUU Student Body President

The Daily Utah Chronicle publishes guest op-eds written by faculty, elected officials and other members of the public on topics relevant to students at the University of Utah. The Chronicle welcomes guest op-ed pitches here.