Varsha Vijayakumar ’20 knows that being the president of the Student Government Association (SGA) isn’t what her family expected her to do in college. Her parents, immigrants from India who settled in the northern New Jersey town of Harrington Park where she was born and raised, saw college as a place to study, excel in classes and secure a good job. But Vijayakumar saw it as so much more; a place where she could learn from her peers and use that knowledge to give back to them through student government.
While she also thinks classes are important, she explained that she has often found the real value of college has been the personal relationships she’s built with her peers through extra-curricular activities.
“I think that I’ve learned so much more from those activities during my time here than I ever have in a classroom,” she said.
Vijayakumar brought this mentality to her run to office last spring. Her platform, which helped win her 60% of the vote, was generated from direct student input. She created a Facebook event called “Let’s Run for President” and set up shop in the back room of Crossroads for hours as students filtered through, throwing down ideas in conversation and onto a collaborative document. Vijayakumar organized the ideas, categorized them and made them her entire platform.
“If the president is supposed to be representing the entire student body, then the platforms and initiatives that I develop shouldn’t be coming from me, they should be coming from the student body,” she said.
Vijayakumar sees the SGA not as a body with authority, but rather the link between student concerns and sustainable change enacted by the student government and administrators.
“I can’t get every student’s input, but I’m going to get as many as I can and develop my platform around that. My platform is our platform,” she said.
Her parents have long since come around as well — Vijayakumar said her dad wasted no time bragging about her ascent to the SGA presidency when she won the election last spring.
In a welcome email to the student body this week, Vijayakumar listed some initiatives that SGA began working on over the summer, including improving the course review site MiddCourses, expanding the relationship between the college and the local community, discontinuing Panther Day in favor of the arts festival Nocturne and making it easier for international students to complete summer internships in the U.S.
On the eve of her year-long term as SGA president, Vijayakumar sat down with the Campus to talk about her path through student government, her goals for the year and her hope for significant and lasting change. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS: How did you end up at Middlebury?
VARSHA VIJAYAKUMAR: I knew that I didn’t want to end up as a number, and I felt that if I went to a big university I wouldn’t be able to have the same relationships with my peers and I wouldn’t be able to know my professors in the same way. Something that has guided my entire life is building relationships with people, and I couldn’t imagine letting go of that in college, or ever letting go of that. This is going to sound ridiculous but I got on campus, parked in front of Old Chapel, looked toward Mead Chapel and I felt it in my bones.
My time here has had its ups and downs, but being abroad last fall has really made me appreciate it here. At one point I was missing the salad bar in Ross. This is a place that I’ve invested so much of myself into. So many people do that, and I’ve met so many brilliant individuals here that have shaped so much of it, and it’s odd being a senior because I’m doing all of it for the last time.
MC: Why did you first decide to become involved in SGA?
VV: I didn’t know about elections the first year until after the deadline, but honestly I don’t think I would have had the courage to run. However, I was on the Institutional Diversity and Inequity committee my first year and experienced the committee side of things. As sophomore year rolled around, I realized that a perspective like mine was not in SGA. But I still didn’t want to run, and I remember asking so many people if they would run for sophomore senator, but nobody wanted to do it. Then there was this moment where I said, “I guess I’ll do it.” I don’t think, at that point, I’d gotten farther than, “We need certain voices in Senate.” I didn’t know what was going on there in that body, but nobody wanted to do it. Then I joined, and realized that it was an important body with the ability to make lasting sustainable change if we utilize it correctly, and that was my motivation to stay in it. Then, I became hooked by the scope of opportunities.
MC: When did you know you wanted to run for president?
VV: Last semester, I was of the opinion that if someone could do the job better than me, I didn’t need to do the job, but then I realized I was the best person for it. Running was a chaotic process, but also a very rewarding one. The day I announced that I was running, there were at least three people a day coming up to me telling me about things they care about. I started thinking: How can we actually channel this energy into accomplishing things that people care about? And that’s how I developed my platform.
MC: What are your first goals in office?
VV: My main vision is to figure out how we can unify: unify the SGA in terms of getting Senate and Cabinet to have conversations with each other and work hand in hand, but also unify students, and get student opinions in a way that we can streamline effectively so that we can harness student interest in a positive way. How can we then build a better relationship with the administration? How can we unify faculty and staff with students?
We’re all important stakeholders in this community, and a lot of the time we don’t really talk to each other. My vision is: How do we find common ground, and how do we work positively from that? My personal goal is to make sure that I can guarantee, come elections in the spring, that I’ve made a lasting positive impact on this campus.
MC: Do you think that the tension with administration at the end of the last semester has affected the way that SGA functions? Has it affected your perspective on the presidency?
VV: If anything, the mobilization of the 13 Proposals has taught me that, bottom line, regardless of how people felt about the situation, people really cared. Immensely. I’ve thought much more intensively about this since that situation at the end of the spring, and I want to know how can we channel that energy so that it’s not something that bubbles up and is tense and overwhelming, but so that students can express what’s bothering them when it comes up.
We all just want to make this a better place. I don’t think that anybody is trying to harm this community. I think keeping that in mind is key, so that we can make the change that students want.
MC: What are some things that you hope have happened by May?
VV: One of my biggest goals is following through on the initiatives that we’ve already developed and committed ourselves to and institutionalizing them better. When senators and directors come up with initiatives, I want them to be tangible, and something that we can accomplish. Everyone wants change but nobody is willing to do the work.The dream is that we can be this body that identifies and fills the gaps.
We don’t claim to be an authority in any way. But there are faculty and staff and administrators who dedicate their entire lives to solving issues. We want to be a body that supports everyone’s growth and grows along with them. I don’t see the work I’m doing as something confined to a year, especially because I see a lot of what we’re doing as maintaining continuity through the years, so it shouldn’t matter that my tenure is up in a year. My work should be continued by the future SGA president.
Riley Board '22 is the Editor in Chief of The Campus. She previously served as a Managing Editor, News Editor, Arts & Academics Editor and writer.
She is majoring in Linguistics as an Independent Scholar and is an English minor on the Creative Writing Track.
Board has worked as a writer at Smithsonian Folklife Magazine and as a reporter for The Burlington Free Press. Currently, she is a 2021-2022 Kellogg Fellow working on her linguistics thesis. In her free time, you can find her roller skating in E-Lot or watching the same sitcoms over and over again.