By Katharine Webster
Chancellor, meet the president.
Every month, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and her executive team gather for lunch in the chancellor’s suite with Student Government Association President Lisa Degou and her executive board to discuss student concerns and initiatives.
The meetings aren’t just window dressing, says Degou, a senior double-majoring in political science and math. Many suggestions made by the SGA, from redesigning campus meal plans to improving student advising, have been adopted by the administration.
“The access you get by being with the SGA is unparalleled,” Degou says. “I’ve talked to friends at other universities, and it’s just not happening on other campuses.”
The benefits go both ways, says Dean of Student Activities Brenda Evans, one of the SGA’s two overall advisors. (The other is Sarah Rine, director of Student Activities and Leadership.)
“This is their institution. We’re here for them, so if there’s a change the students want or need, then we always tell them to bring it to the table – but first, we tell them to do their homework,” Evans says. “They do research on every initiative with the idea of collaborating with administrators from Day One, and they keep on working with them.”
The SGA’s professionalism was on display at the January luncheon meeting in the chancellor’s suite. Degou, Vice President Brian Madigan, the SGA committee chairs and student Trustee Lindy Reed all dressed in their business best to meet with Moloney, Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Larry Siegel, four vice chancellors and Evans.
First, they helped themselves to a taco buffet while chatting informally. Then they got down to business. The students each gave a brief update on their initiatives. The administrators listened respectfully, then asked questions and made suggestions like managers mentoring young, motivated employees.
“That’s a great question. I like the way you think!” Moloney told Degou after she asked whether CVS would pay to install and service large vending machines filled with Tylenol and toiletries, since the company would profit.
Afterward, they moved on to the main event: a presentation of the results from the December 2017 SGA survey. Junior Andre DiFilippo, a business management and marketing major who chairs the SGA’s Academic Affairs Committee, calls it “a knowledge grab on how student government and the university can help students thrive and succeed.”
The survey was completed by 1,360 students, or 12 percent of all undergraduates, representing every demographic on campus. Moloney and her team listened intently as Difilippo summarized students’ experiences with academics and financial aid, food insecurity and work, mental health and clubs, campus technology and behavioral issues.
Suggestions for improvements included a dedicated space for LGBTQ students, more tutoring options and hours, more late-night study spaces and help with practical life skills, including cooking.
“This is an extraordinary effort you made,” Moloney said after the survey presentation. “Every year, you just keep taking it to the next level. We’ll be taking these results to the 2020 Strategic Plan committees.”
The tradition of the SGA’s monthly lunches with university leadership began with former Chancellor Marty Meehan, who also agreed to hold open forums hosted by the SGA. As a result of the students’ input, administrators approved the installation of hydration stations in all residence halls, banned smoking on campus and expanded dining hall hours and shuttle service.
Moloney has continued both the lunches and the forums – and says the university has benefitted from the relationship.
“They’re helping us to set the agenda for elevating the university,” Moloney says. “Everybody is on board and rowing in the same direction. I think that is really a hallmark of UMass Lowell and our community: We treat each other with respect, we work collaboratively and everyone pitches in and works hard, including the students.”
As a longtime educator, Moloney also enjoys watching the students develop from tentative first-year senators to SGA leaders and true partners with university administrators.
“By the time they graduate, they’ve grown and matured, they’ve developed their confidence and they’ve learned how to think strategically,” she says.
Siegel says the SGA’s leaders are learning important life and career skills, including how to think creatively and negotiate professionally while understanding the limits on the university’s resources.
“They don’t take their access to the chancellor’s team lightly – and they wrap up every meeting by asking, ‘What can we do for you?’” Siegel says.
The answer is often that the SGA can help get the word out about campus resources, from the Navigators Food Pantry to Wellness Center workshops and the SGA’s own financial literacy workshops.
The SGA has scored other major successes, including the launch of a new dual-advising system, which resulted from close cooperation between the student leaders and administrators. Past SGA surveys had helped to pinpoint gaps and concerns. The SGA’s Academic Affairs Committee members then worked with their advisor, Dean of Academic Services Kerry Donohoe, and Vice Provost for Student Success Julie Nash to shape the new system.
It debuted last September, when all first-year and transfer students were assigned both a faculty advisor in their major and a full-time professional advisor. Three months later, the SGA survey shows that freshmen are much more satisfied with advising than upper-class students.
The student leaders have ongoing access to the administration’s support and expertise. In addition to Evans and Rine, each of the SGA’s five committees has a high-level staff mentor and advisor who works with the students to advance their goals.
Degou says the close working relationship ensures that student concerns are taken into account in every major decision, including keeping the event space in Cumnock Hall open for student club use while adding a grab-and-go marketplace – and keeping fee increases to a minimum.
Degou, who is planning to attend law school, says her SGA involvement gave her the confidence to run for student body president: She knew she could make a difference by helping her executive board members achieve their potential and by supporting their initiatives. It’s a leadership style she developed largely by observing Moloney at the monthly luncheons.
“For three years now, I’ve watched her make everyone in the room feel like what they had to say was equally important,” Degou says. “Honestly, she’s my idol.”