Small Steps, Moving Forward

Nobody is very good at keeping election promises. From national politics down to our recent student government elections, we’re faced with the fact that not every single thing a candidate campaigns for will come to pass, whether quickly or at all.

I came into my position this year as ASPC Commissioner for Academic Affairs convinced that my involvement with the faculty would lead to tangible curricular change, that I would be able to positively impact faculty hiring practices, and that maybe I’d be able to bring some happy proof of my accomplishments back to the student body. 

Then bureaucracy happened. 

Pomona College, like any institution, is able to keep running from day to day and year to year because of a complex institutional infrastructure that makes change difficult. Exciting as it would be to waltz in and turn upside down everything we do with general education, admissions metrics, or departmental funding, there’s so much momentum involved in the continued existence of this institution that changing even small things ends up requiring repetitive discussions, layers of voting and approval from different committees, and a whole lot of time. This isn’t exactly exciting rhetoric to run on, but it’s a reality that I think students have to consider as we think forward to what we want our experience next year to be, and what kind of legacy we want to leave.

The results of this year’s ASPC elections reveal that our voting student body respects peers who dream big, and that we crave a politics that is actively inclusive and, however freely bandied about the word may be, progressive. 

What I’d like us to continue to consider now, next fall, and next spring, is what that actually looks like. Although I wish ideas automatically entailed progress, change is slow and often comes in small packages. The project to provide Plan B and related products through vending machines on campus that was initiated by last year’s Senate is still incomplete, its progress slowed by what can feel like a never-ending cycle of logistical and legal hurdles. No matter how interested I was in a general education overhaul and fairer credit assignment for classes and labs, other issues were brought to the forefront in the Curriculum Committee, and I sat through a lot of conversations this year that were different from the ones I had anticipated when I started a year ago. 

Frustrating as these changes of plan can be, they also ask us to conceive of good, local political work and progress in new ways. To an extent, we’ll always expect big-ticket items from our student leaders: bold ideas for making campus a safer and more inclusive space, and innovative event planning and student life improvements. However, these changes require huge amounts of energy, and often face logistical and financial hurdles along the way, so I’d like us all to consider the small changes our community can effect as well. Asking our elected leaders to be the only beacons of progress, and to only do big things, does our whole community a disservice.

Probably the most influential thing I did in my year on Senate was read and vote on petitions to the Academic Procedures Committee—the one place where my position actually has voting power that can make a difference. We didn’t all walk out of our year of involvement with big, flashy news, and, truthfully, I sometimes feel a little inadequate beside my fellow senators who planned events, revamped campus policies, and made visible, lasting changes to this campus. I comfort myself with the knowledge that approving some of those petitions and advocating for students’ well-being did have some positive effects, even on just a few individuals. 

It’s like this for all of us: Someone will always be doing something bigger and better and bolder at work, in class, or anywhere else in the community. The trick, for all of us, is to figure out how to make a difference, however small, that feels meaningful. I’m still figuring it out myself, and maybe you haven’t gotten it figured out either—but I do know that what we’re doing counts for something.

Julia Austenfeld PO ’15 is a music major from Fribourg, Switzerland and Raleigh, N.C. She was recently elected ASPC Board of Trustees Academic Affairs Representative.

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