When Roni Lezama ’22 first stepped onto campus, he “looked around, wanting to hear Spanish in a place where most have spent their whole lives breathing and living English.” Though he was unsure whether Middlebury was the kind of place where he — an only child of Mexican immigrants and one of many students from New York City — would have the opportunity to make a difference, that changed quickly.
Lezama did not come to Middlebury planning to run for president of the Student Government Association (SGA), but he has wanted to create change at Middlebury since his first year, animated by the drive to make white-oriented places more inviting and supportive for those traditionally excluded.
He went on to win the Spencer Prize in his first year, using his speech to describe the fear of not being accepted at Middlebury because of his heritage and bilingualism. Later, the work of SGA presidents like Nia Robinson ’19 and Varsha Vijayakumar ’20 and seeing women of color in the role early on in his time here set the tone for his image of SGA leadership.
“It gave me an initial impression of what SGA can do,” Lezama said. “It made me think, ‘there is a place here where I can make change.’”
He first became involved with SGA through the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee during Robinson’s presidency, and was mentored by the committee’s chair Kahari Blue ’19. It was his close friend John Schurer ’21, who would later become SGA president himself, who nudged Lezama to take on another leadership role.
“I still remember that day,” Lezama said. “John got all serious and clapped his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I think you should run for Community Council Co-Chair.’” Lezama did run, won, and led the group of students, faculty, staff and administrators his sophomore year. Schurer then took on Lezama as one of his vice presidents after he was elected SGA president in spring 2020.
While inspired by the work of previous presidents and conscious of the continued challenges posed by Covid-19, Lezama is focused on the future.
“[Past presidents] showed me that it was more than OK to challenge and push the administration,” Lezama said. “They are our gateway, but in the end it is our job to advocate for students.”
Lezama said this balance is emblematic of his leadership style: being effective in his term will be about combining disruption and cooperation, needing the administration to listen and knowing when to make them. He admits to having sworn at the administration — on the record — in SGA meetings before. At the same time, a key goal on his senior bucket list is to have a coffee with each member of the Senior Leadership Group individually.
As president, he hopes to take the lessons learned from the pandemic and use them to set up systems of support for years to come. Though the pandemic revealed that the need for such support was far deeper and broader than was previously realized, to Lezama, these are not pandemic-specific issues.
“So much of what I have done with SGA in the past has been reactive,” Lezama said. “It had to be. But I want to be proactive.”
His first priority is to create a permanent substitute for the Student Emergency Fund established in 2020 to help with unexpected financial burdens of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was unbelievable to see how immense, and palpable, the need was for emergency funds once they were available,” Lezama said.
He also wants to improve the accessibility and availability of on-campus mental health resources, and bolster the services tailored towards BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ students.
Lezama is ready for his administration to be a disruptive one, working to reshape Middlebury in deep but tangible ways to support the students who often do not get a seat at the table. DEI will be at the “front lines” of his administration, the lens through which every SGA department does its work, he said.
Sophia Lundberg ’21.5, this semester’s Community Council co-chair and a vice-president last year, describes Lezama as someone with both immense drive and humility, who values vulnerability in leadership and has a tireless work ethic.
“His determination to pursue justice and equity is informed by his own life circumstances,” Lundberg said. He works constantly “in the hopes that it allows those who have been traditionally barred from comfortably enjoying their time here to access institutional resources and support with more ease.”
President Laurie Patton expressed similar admiration.
“Roni Lezama is the real deal,” Patton said in an email to The Campus. “He is relentless, as we all should be, about making Middlebury better. Because he also possesses an accurate sense of what it takes to build an institution, he begins by being open, and invites you to be on his team to get it done. This combination of traits is the source of his effectiveness as a leader.”
Though Lezama jokes that he will have to apologize to his professors because “SGA is [his] life now,” he has other hopes for his senior year. He wants to go out for coffee in town more (his order is an americano, black), and finally go to the Woodchuck Cidery. He also wants to take someone on the perfect date off campus that he has been planning for years.
Cat McLaughlin is a super-senior feb from Gilford, NH. As a political science major, she became interested in journalism through media studies. In her free time she enjoys alpine skiing and sailing. She also has worked as a ski coach at the Middlebury Snow Bowl, is a lover of Proc dining hall, is hooked on iced coffee, and watches the Pride and Prejudice movie at least 20 times per year.