ASI presidential candidates debate campus issues, priorities

Seven candidates for Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) president discussed topics such as diversity, equity and inclusion and advocated for changes to ASI’s bureaucracy at the ASI Presidential Debate Thursday morning.

Each candidate gave one-minute responses to questions asked by Mustang Media Group editor-in-chief and journalism senior Tessa Hughes and ASI Board of Directors and political science senior Jake Goldman in the University Union Plaza.

Students can vote for any of the seven candidates — political science sophomore Gracie Babatola, civil engineering junior Suha Hussain, political science junior Andrew Kim, experience and industry management junior Caty Ogden, electrical engineering junior Marley Timmerman and write-in candidates industrial technology and packaging junior Will Newell and agricultural business junior Jake Zylstra — from April 20 at 9 a.m. to April 21 at 9 a.m. via their Cal Poly Portal.

Photos provided by the candidates. Marley Timmerman and Will Newell did not provide Mustang News photos.

Here is a recap of Thursday’s debate.

Priorities 

Timmerman, a current Board of Directors representative, said her number one priority is to reconnect clubs with student government. She said it is the best way to bring diverse voices into ASI.

“Clubs are not currently supported by ASI student government and those connections need to be put in place to move forward with solving problems,” Timmerman said.

She proposed holding frequent meetings between club representatives and ASI Student Government officials where club members can discuss grievances with ASI and propose solutions moving forward.

Kim, the Board of Directors vice-chair, also wants to strengthen the ASI-club relationship. 

He said in the past few years, student organizations struggled to follow unclear Cal Poly COVID-19 guidelines and were unfairly penalized by Cal Poly’s administration when violating rules they didn’t know existed.

“If those policies return, we need to have proper guidelines and procedures for all organizations to follow so students know exact procedure on what to follow instead of always questioning themselves and asking, ‘is this okay to do?’” Kim said.

Hussain, the current chair of the Board of Directors, said she would encourage student government members to engage with students directly using open office hours on Dexter Lawn and holding programs with free food for students. She also wants to highlight transparency of how student fees are being used.

Newell concurred with Hussain, adding that he also wants to use outreach as one of his main tools if elected. 

“If people feel like they can’t approach you, you’re never going to be aware of these issues,” Newell said. 

Another one of Newell’s priorities is school spirit — he said he will elevate club sports and wants to see people coming to games and wearing Cal Poly gear.

Ogden, meanwhile, said she will focus her presidency around an “open door policy.”

“I want students to have a direct line of communication with my office,” Ogden said. “That also looks like visiting different clubs and organizations on campus that I’m not a part of.”

Campus Issues

Hussain said ASI is disconnected from the student body and that they should focus their outreach to students who don’t typically engage with student government. 

She said they have started doing so by approving and implementing two ASI scholarships for Indigenous Peoples and Dreamers.

“In the past, student voice hasn’t been taken seriously or been as reputable, and in my role this year I’ve been trying to make us a credible body where students are taken seriously,” Hussain said. “[I want to] facilitate conversations between students and university administrators and be that liaison so I can speak beyond my own words and offer input from a wide range of students.”

Newell said the biggest issue on campus is loneliness, and that while transitioning back to in-person learning, students have forgotten how to connect with each other.

“The role of ASI is to give those people events to go to,” Newell said. “Get people to go to those football games, soccer games, baseball games, get out of the house and go meet people again and reduce loneliness.”

Ogden called out several problems such as a lack of affordable housing and campus safety, both of which are creating a poor environment for students’ mental health.

Babatola expanded on Ogden’s comments, underscoring mental health support as one of her priorities.

“We have a lot of reactive measures rather than proactive measures in place,” Babatola said. “Too often, this campus waits until an incident occurs to reach out to students.”

She said that since she has personally faced difficulties with access to mental health care, she has an understanding of how to advocate for other students in the same position.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Babatola said her background as a student assistant in Student Diversity and Belonging gives her unique experiences engaging with students of all backgrounds.

“DEI is what I go to work for every day, and as a Black student on this campus it is a very real reality that I face,” Babatola said. “This pandemic has shown us how important different modes of communication and learning have been especially for our folks with disabilities and [those] who don’t feel comfortable on campus.”

Ogden said it’s important to consider all dimensions of diversity — including accessibility, gender-based equality and students’ undocumented status.

“I want to be able to gather student feedback and base DEI projects off that,” Ogden said. “Too often, it falls to our peers of minority groups to take on this work and I’d like to use my privilege to elevate those voices.”

Kim, who is involved in eight multicultural clubs on campus, shared how he will delegate the tasks of diversity, equity and inclusion to club and organization leaders.

“I’m going to support the students who establish communities for students from similar backgrounds and marginalized groups,” Kim said. “It is impossible for ASI to [directly] satisfy the needs of all students.”

Timmerman said Cal Poly struggles with a “systemic” inability to support marginalized groups and that she’ll work to combat these problems in the long run.

“Discrimination, homophobia, sexual violence — these things won’t be solved through small steps we take as president, but we can make steps toward furthering the solutions that can be put in place in the future,” Timmerman said.

Newell, a white student who grew up in a small town in Georgia, said many students like him don’t understand issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. He intends to keep an open mind in order to make student government a “united organization.”

“DEI wasn’t preached to me growing up,” Newell said. “I want to make it the first intro students have when they get to Cal Poly because it’s important to build that foundation immediately.”

Fostering a sense of community

Several students suggested ideas to bring students with different backgrounds together after the moderators asked a question about strengthening the campus’ sense of community.

Timmerman said she has developed Discord communities so people from diverse backgrounds can have discussions with each other.

“Discord is an inclusive environment where people can get together and talk about whatever they like knowing they are in a safe space with people that are not from their same background,” Timmerman said.

Kim said he wants to provide entertaining experiences to all students from diverse backgrounds and connect them with student organizations and clubs. He also wants to support the needs of students who are still transitioning back from virtual learning and aren’t yet a part of campus communities.

“I want to make ASI student government more accessible, friendly and fun,” Kim said.

What sets them apart

Timmerman said she will approach the ASI president position from an engineering mindset, pledging to follow through with her promises by posting a project plan on how she will reconnect ASI with clubs.

“If you are an engineer and you don’t finish your projects, you get fired,” Timmerman said. “You can’t solve a problem unless you fully understand and have investigated and researched that problem.”

Babatola mentioned her plan to implement a “P-card” system — a way for clubs to access their funds using a credit card instead of having to get approval to spend money through ASI.

Ogden highlighted her work with Campus Health and Wellbeing combatting COVID-19 misinformation and her experience doing campus accessibility assessments with faculty members, educating students on sexual assault prevention Safer and supporting minority-owned businesses during the pandemic.

“As the [ASI] Secretary of Community Relations, my work is centered around building community from the ground up,” Ogden said. “I want to [work] to monitor public health while also prioritizing community engagement.”

Change within ASI

Timmerman said her biggest challenge as president will be navigating “the bureaucratic system that is ASI student government.” As the ASI Internal Review Committee chair, she said she understands the inner workings of the system so she can either tear down red tape or navigate around it.

Hussain noted her ASI experience in writing resolutions on the Board of Directors, adding that she plans to update ASI’s policies and procedures, which need “systemic change.”

“ASI does have a lot of bureaucratic procedures but through my role as chair of the Board, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of [them],” Hussain said.

Ogden argued that it’s difficult to accomplish true systemic change in one year as president. However, she also said she is equipped with “institutional knowledge of what it takes to make change on this campus” from being a member of ASI’s Executive Cabinet.

Babatola provided a different take after the debate, challenging other candidates’ qualifications within ASI.

“Oftentimes, people mistake experience for action,” Babatola said. “If many of these candidates have been in ASI for two, three years, how come it is now that they’re recognizing this disconnect? How come it is now that they want to implement plans into rebuilding these connections? I know that change doesn’t happen overnight, or in one term, but I have to ask — if change can’t happen in two or three terms, how long do you think it is going to take?”

Zylstra raises controversy

Zylstra, who declared his candidacy this week, stirred up emotions at the debate with a statement that other candidates called “transphobic.”

Zylstra said his beliefs as a Republican student differentiate him from other candidates. He promised to respect students who have different political positions than himself and condemned the “vandalism” of a February pro-life protest that took place on Dexter lawn.

“That is not the way Cal Poly should treat people with differing viewpoints,” Zylstra said.

Minutes later, he said the biggest issue facing Cal Poly students was “gender confusion,” seemingly referring to non-binary and transgender students. He continued to say that students who are “not sure how to identify themselves” lead more difficult lives than others.

He also said that Cal Poly should not “encourage or celebrate” students’ varying gender expressions.

“It’s an ideology that leads to suffering and leads to more confusion and denying the truth,” Zylstra said.

Other candidates immediately decried Zylstra’s comment.

“Transphobia is absolutely disgusting and has no place on Cal Poly’s campus,” Babatola said.

Timmerman, a member of the Trans and Queer Student Union, disagreed with the idea of gender confusion being an issue.

“It’s a celebrated journey that we should respect and love and once somebody understands that, all love to you,” Timmerman said. 

Debate attendee and microbiology junior Izabella Terry appreciated that no candidates supported Zylstra’s “gender confusion” statement.

“I really agreed with all the candidates who were rejecting [Zylstra’s] transphobic comments,” Terry said. “It’s very important to reaffirm community values and acceptance, and to not backtrack on that.”

ASI President Tess Loarie took to the ASI Student Government Instagram account Thursday afternoon to address the comment.

“While we encourage all candidates to practice free speech, the views of the candidates do not reflect the views of ASI or ASI Student Government,” Loarie said in a video post.

Zylstra ended the debate by reiterating his values.

“I support all students, I support protecting women and protecting children — protecting these groups that don’t feel comfortable protecting themselves,” he said. 

“In an email to Mustang News on Friday, Zylstra said that he is “apologetic to anyone [he] may have offended.”

Post-debate

Several candidates complimented each others’ performances after stepping off the stage.

“I really enjoyed hearing from everybody,” Newell said. “Everyone has a really unique personality … but we all have a similar goal in mind: to unify the community.”

Hussain praised students for showing up to the debate as well as her opponents for civically engaging with the community.

“I was really happy to see the student turnout and … seeing that engagement in student government,” Hussain said. “We are here to serve [students].”

Timmerman said she appreciated the debate’s substance.

“I liked how people actually talked off of what other people were saying,” Timmerman said. “It felt like everybody was listening to each other instead of ignoring each other and saying what their own beliefs were.”

Zylstra acknowledged many of his viewpoints differ from his opponents.

“I’m the one that sticks out the most from other candidates,” Zylstra said. “Some of the other candidates called me transphobic, which is not even close to true … But I think they all did a good enough job.”

Electrical engineering junior Nolan Pinto, who is part of Cal Poly College Republicans, said he was skeptical of several students’ promises.

“A lot of these candidates say that they want to encourage safe spaces for people, but really, I don’t have faith that they’re actually going to promote genuine free speech on campus,” Pinto said.

In the same video on Thursday, Loarie provided more information about the student government’s role on campus.

“The ASI Board of Directors manages over $6 million in your student fees,” Loarie said.

She explained how the ASI president co-chairs several key funding committees which manage millions of more dollars in student fees.

“We encourage students to understand the values of the candidate they intend to vote for along with the advocacy duties and tangible fiscal responsibilities of the positions up for election,” Loarie said.

Above all, the presidential candidates are excited about the election and said their number one priority is voter turnout.

“Even if you don’t vote for me, vote,” Timmerman said.

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