Student Government to Focus on Diversity and Inclusion
Being part of one of the most diverse student bodies among the 14 universities that make up the PASSHE system is a point of pride for Leila Bouchekouk, East Stroudsburg University’s new Student Government Association president. This year, she and other SGA leaders are making it a priority to ensure students from all races, religions, sexual orientations and backgrounds feel included and their voices heard.
To that end, Bouchekouk and other SGA leaders plan to invite students from different groups on campus to monthly lunch or dinner meetings to listen to their concerns and challenges and talk about possible remedies.
“We’re one of the most diverse schools in the PASSHE school system and Monroe County is one of the most diverse counties in Pennsylvania,” Bouchekouk said. “So I think it’s important that we have this diversity, that we can have these discussions. If we can have these discussions, it can be done elsewhere.”
Brandon Teel, SGA finance chair, and Carly Newcombe, SGA internal affairs chair, agreed.
“I think we’re really diverse but we have to work more on the inclusion part,” Teel said. “We want more students to speak up so they feel like their concerns are being addressed.”
“We are the students’ voice,” said Newcombe. “They should be comfortable coming to us.”
The monthly lunch and dinner meetings sound like a great idea to Dr. Cornelia Sewell-Allen, ESU’s new assistant vice president for inclusive excellence. Sewell-Allen, who had previously served as dean of student life, has been in the newly created position since June.
“A lot of us congregate around food,” Sewell-Allen said. “It allows people to conduct this kind of maybe-not-so-easy conversation in a more relaxed atmosphere. You’re breaking bread, if you will, with a peer. I think it’s a great first step for Leila and SGA to get our students talking.”
The SGA also expects to look into specific changes in policies, such as establishing more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, and wants to see more students on search committees on faculty hiring.
Last spring, ESU conducted a climate survey to gauge experiences of students, faculty and staff on campus and that data is being analyzed to help inform university practices regarding diversity, equity and inclusion going forward, Sewell-Allen said. Along with Dr. Bill Bajor, director of Graduate & Extended Studies, Sewell-Allen is co-chairing a diversity and inclusion committee, which will include an SGA representative among other students representing other organizations.
“So when faculty and staff are talking about diversity, inclusion and equity, I want to make sure students are in the room making decisions with us on what is the next right step to take,” Sewell-Allen said.
She said ESU is taking steps to increase the number of gender-neutral bathrooms throughout campus, particularly during new construction and renovations. The university continues to work with the PA Department of Labor and Industry to modify their regulations regarding gender-neutral bathrooms.
“When we think about gender neutral bathrooms, it’s certainly a need that we’ve been trying to address for a long time and I have to say we’ve done a pretty good job within the current regulatory constraints” Sewell-Allen said.
She looks forward to working with Bouchekouk and her team on all these issues.
“When we talk about students who are just champions of social justice, who are advocates and really activism-focused, that is Leila,” she said. “This will be a great opportunity for both of us because we’re both passionate about this diversity work and what it means for ESU to create a community and a campus where everybody is able to thrive at the same level and achieve success at the same level without barriers.”
“There’s so many opportunities at ESU but you have to be an advocate for yourself, making sure you go and you get those opportunities,” Bouchekouk said.
Elections for SGA representatives are coming up Sept. 17 and 18 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Students who seek to run, can pick up a petition form at the SGA offices on the second floor of the Student Union. They are due back Sept. 6.
Among SGA’s other goals for the year are raising money for scholarships for students and helping the campus library with its textbook lending service, promoting sustainability on campus to combat climate change, and making sure there’s enough mental health services for students who are struggling.
Bouchekouk was elected as the new SGA president last spring but she isn’t new to activism. In the first semester of her freshman year, she was able to help bring to campus an early screening of “Before the Flood,” a National Geographic documentary about climate change, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio.
In 2018, as part of the student affairs committee, Bouchekouk worked with the local NAACP branch to coordinate a campus bus trip to Washington, D.C. to the March for Our Lives event to demonstrate for a solution to gun violence following the mass shootings that killed 17 students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
A chemistry major with minors in Spanish and public health, Bouchekouk was also president of the campus branch of RotarAct, a subsidiary of Rotary International, that inspires community service in young people.
“I always tell our members, if you help the person to the left of you and you help the person to the right of you and you help yourself, then the whole world would be taken care of,” Bouchekouk said.