Across the board: Meet this year’s student government

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Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt’s Student Government Board has big plans for the 2021-22 academic year. Meet this year’s board and learn about their priorities and plans.

By Allison Radziwon, Staff Writer

Pitt’s student body elects a new Student Government Board each year to be their voice during the upcoming academic year. The board is comprised of the president and nine board members. After a tumultuous election season and a year of online classes, SGB has big plans for the 2021-2022 academic year. The Pitt News spoke with the board to learn about their top priorities and plans to improve campus life this fall.

Harshitha Ramanan, president

Ramanan, a junior neuroscience major, said she wants to expand student knowledge on what SGB does for the University, as well as increase transparency between the board and the student body “with the help of her co-chief of staffs and communications team.” She plans to design a new website that’s easier to navigate, create a newsletter and ensure that all social media pages are up to date. 

Ramanan also said she plans to help transition students safely back to in-person classes and activities. She said she and the board will work with Kenyon Bonner, vice provost for student affairs, Carla Panzella, incoming dean of students, and Thomas Hitter, assistant vice chancellor for policy development and management.

Tyler Viljaste, co-chief of staff

In the upcoming academic year, Viljaste, a senior politics & philosophy and finance double major, will encourage students to sign the LGBTQIA+ task force’s petition, which includes the creation of a dedicated center for LGBTQIA+ students. Vijlaste established this task force last year to create resources for LGBTQIA+ members of the Pitt community. Viljaste also plans to work on new initiatives to better support LGBTQIA+ students on campus, such as lgbtqia.pitt.edu, which will list LGBTQIA+ resources for students. Viljaste said it will become public at the beginning of the fall term. 

“I am deeply passionate about issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community at Pitt,” Viljaste said. “I have the institutional knowledge and the expertise and skill sets required to ensure I can see all of my initiatives to fruition and help others do the same.”

Joe Landsittel, co-chief of staff

Landsittel, a senior applied mathematics major, said his main priority is establishing a strong connection with students by increasing communication through “revamping infrastructure.” He said this means establishing regular communication with the student body through social media. 

He also said SGB should communicate with student organizations all year, not just during campaign season. He wants SGB to include more opinions on future initiatives and proposals.

 “SGB should be a responsive body that actively hears the students,” Landsittel said.

Aboli Kesbhat, vice president of operations

Kesbhat, a senior neuroscience and psychology double major, said she intends to work with the Allocations Committee, which she formerly chaired, to make it “more accessible to students.” She said she plans to have open discussions with administrators, organizations and departments, so students always know where their money is being used — a highly debated topic during last year’s SGB election campaign. With a surplus in Student Activity Fees money from last academic year, Kesbhat said she hopes to rework that money into scholarship and project funds for students.

“Whether that be adding to a COVID student relief fund — something like we did last year, especially coming out of a pandemic with tuition increases happening — using those funds, going back to students who paid into it in the first place,” Kesbhat said. “The other thing is reworking those funds hopefully into scholarships, whether that be for minority students, for projects that students wanna do on campus, stuff like that.”

Kesbhat would also like to work on disability awareness and making sure students with disabilities feel “valued and wanted, just like everyone else.” She said she intends to work to make sure education and student activities are accessible to everyone.

Danielle Floyd, vice president of initiatives 

Floyd, a junior economics major, said the pandemic has taken a toll on students, especially for first-years and sophomores, who mostly interacted with their pods of about six people throughout the whole year. As wellness committee chair last year, Floyd helped lead the planning for Mental Health Awareness Month and established mental health liaisons in student groups. She said this year she wants to talk to administration and staff about student well being, so they can make “meaningful changes.”

“I think because of the pandemic and social justice movements that took place last year, we know that many students have had a change in their needs, whether that’s a need to be connected to more resources around campus, or to cope with additional anxieties they might feel,” Floyd said. “It’s important to me that whenever I go into these spaces, I continue to advocate and shed light on these issues.”

Floyd also intends to “[continue] the conversations” that were started last year about diversity, because they helped “plant the seed of change.” She said she plans to work with the task force SGB launched last spring, Students of Color in Solidarity, which brings together student organizations that represent communities of color that are underrepresented at Pitt. 

“I want to make sure they’re leading to actionable items for us to continue to work on throughout the year and into the future,” Floyd said.

Ryan Murphy, vice president of governance

Murphy, a junior political science and history double major, said he wants to focus on community and civic engagement. He said he plans to do so by advocating for the Civic Engagement Hub — the center to help students find civic and community opportunities across campus and support the greater Pittsburgh community. 

He said he wants to expand on previous board members’ efforts — like Viljaste, Cedric Humphrey and Kathryn Fleisher, who all created the Civic Advising program — to increase student awareness of the program. He plans to work with the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. as well as Dominic Victoria, chair of the Community and Governmental Relations committee, to make this possible. 

“Unlike many other large college campuses, Pitt finds itself in the center of a large urban area, surrounded by non-student residents,” Murphy, who was previously Community and Governmental Relations chair, said. “Therefore, I think it is important for us to not only find a way to coexist with our neighbors, but rather build strong relationships to better our community as a whole.”

Murphy also said he will focus on helping students become more “politically engaged,” working with the PittVotes Student Task Force to both increase voter registration and turnout.

Daniel Temmallo, board member

Temmallo, a sophomore political science and public and professional writing double major, intends to have a “campus tour,” where he and other board members will visit each residence hall to talk directly to students. Temmallo said he hopes to make SGB “more directly accessible” to the student body and the dorm visits will make it easier to answer student questions and concerns directly.

“The most common comments I found when talking to students, especially the first-years, were ‘what does SGB actually do?’ and ‘I didn’t even know we had a student government.’ I want to fix that,” Temmallo said. “I think SGB can be a vehicle for direct change in the lives of Pitt’s student body, more so than it has been. I want people to think of SGB as an entity that people can come to for anything.”

Nikhita Chakraborty, board member

Chakraborty, a junior history and political science double major, said mental health resources are her top priority. She said she hopes to help advertise already available resources more publicly, such as virtual counseling services, as well as introduce more mental health workshops. She also said she would like to advertise in-person counseling services as Pitt transitions back into in-person environments. 

Chakraborty, who was previously the vice chair of the Community and Governmental Relations committee, said she plans to work with both the Wellness Committee and Floyd to accomplish her goals. 

“Mental health should always be the forefront concern for students on campus,” Chakraborty said. “It can often go neglected, and especially with this new post-vaccine life, there are going to be all sorts of new hurdles to deal with.”

Chakraborty also plans to tackle diversity issues among University staff “on all levels.” She said she wants to talk to student leaders facing these issues and create a pathway of communication to administration so student leaders are actually heard. 

“As a woman of color myself, this issue is near and dear to my heart,” Chakraborty said. “I understand the pain of not being represented in academic spaces, and don’t want this to continue on a campus I love.”

Caroline Goodwin, board member

Goodwin, a junior biological sciences major, said she intends to help Ramanan with managing the transition from online classes to in-person instruction.

Goodwin also said she plans to work with Viljaste on the LGBTQIA+ task force. As the liaison to the diversity and inclusion committee, Goodwin said she will be “active” in their initiatives and events.

“I am very excited to see what this year brings and know I will be helping out with other initiatives as needed,” Goodwin said. “We truly are here to represent the students, so I want to make it clear that as things arise we may need to readjust and set our goals accordingly.”

Matthew Moore, board member

Moore, a junior politics & philosophy major, said he wants to ensure a “smooth transition” back to in-person classes and activities. He plans to meet this goal by being a voice for students in meetings with University administrators so “the average student’s wants, needs and feelings are seen and heard.” He also intends to use social media to stay in touch with Pitt’s student body.

Moore also intends to highlight local and midterm elections, as well as civic engagement. As a former member of the elections committee, he feels passionately about helping students get involved with their local community and the political process.

“Civic engagement is just another component of the comprehensive college experience, and truth be told, there can never be enough opportunities for students to engage in their community and the political process — especially with crucial midterm elections coming up,” Moore said.

Brennan Conway, board member 

Conway, a senior economics and political science double major, said the board is working on establishing “outside private bank accounts” for students instead of the current accounts managed by the Student Organization Resource Center. He said this is his priority in order to improve both communication and efficiency between the University and student groups. 

With the help of Ramanan, they plan to create a focus group to help with the transition from the current system. Conway said they hope student groups will have private bank accounts by spring or next fall. 

Conway also said SGB is working with Pitt’s HR department and the Association of American Universities to commission a survey for “student worker satisfaction” from universities across the nation.

After much discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of previous experience with SGB, Conway hopes that, as a new board member, his fresh perspective on issues helps improve SGB in the upcoming year.

“I can already say this year is gonna be sort of a renaissance year for SGB, and we’re gonna be a lot more responsive to the students, a lot more transparent, a lot more open, a lot more accessible,” Conway said. “And I hope my newcomer perspective can maybe shape the direction of the board back towards the students … and I’m glad that everyone on the board has been receptive to that as well.”

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