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Published on March 23, 2022

SGA: Giving students a voice

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SGA student leaders rest before a day of rock climbing, archery, team building and planning for the upcoming school year at their fall 2014 retreat at Camp Jewel in Colebrook.

When Eastern Connecticut State University alumni return to campus they encourage students to get involved with a student club to enhance their college career, sharing their own experiences as proof of the importance of campus leadership opportunities. In addition to making friends and learning valuable leadership skills, national and Eastern data clearly show that engaging in a student club improves students’ GPAs and graduation rates. Among the more than 90 clubs and student organizations at Eastern, one of the most influential is the Student Government Association (SGA).

The SGA mission is straightforward: “To represent the Eastern student body and student organizations in all matters affecting their rights, interests and well-being.” Archives in the J. Eugene Smith Library show SGA minutes dating back to 1921, reflecting the longevity of the organization and students’ commitment to documenting their work.

Current SGA officers include President Nathan Fontaine; Vice President Matthew Mendolia; Socheata Chea, secretary; Nora Ammouche, treasurer; and Sam St. John, chair of the budget and management committee. “As the president of SGA, I am most proud of how of we are rebuilding the organization and helping revitalize the campus community after the impact of COVID-19,” said Fontaine. “The drive and leadership I have seen in the new senators this year is inspiring and promising for the future of Eastern.”

Under Fontaine’s leadership, SGA has accomplished much this year, including serving students with weekly virtual meetings; monthly Warrior Wednesdays; a new virtual “meet the candidate” event and online elections in 2021-22; initiating a Greener Initiative, which made the Eastern community aware of Eastern’s 2020 Climate Action plan and how the University is nationally recognized as a green campus; beginning SGA’s Love Your Neighbor program; funding and promoting a highly successful health conference; and establishing SGA’s Diversity and Equity ad hoc committee, working in conjunction with Student Affairs, NAACP and other organizations. 

Yineira Lopez ’20

Two years ago, Eastern students elected “Opportunity Scholars” — participants in the national TheDream.US program — for all four SGA officer positions. Yineira Lopez ’20, a native of Valencia, Venezuela, double majored in political science and sociology. The resident of Georgia began participating in SGA in her first year at Eastern as a senator, and moved up to Student Issues Committee chair, vice president and eventually president.

The most notable achievement during Lopez’s tenure as president was the purchase of new vans for SGA, which she said was important as the old vans were breaking down and posed safety hazards for students on the road. “Also, the revision of budget and management guidelines led by the chair of that committee allowed for a more equitable distribution of funds across all student clubs,” explained Lopez. “Transitioning all SGA activities to an online platform was a challenge that we were able to overcome amid the pandemic, which allowed us to continue to serve students amid uncertain times.”

Lopez currently works at Bader Scott Injury Lawyers in Atlanta, GA, as the lead on the workers compensation team. She manages all paralegals in the Workers Compensation Department across various offices in the state. Lopez said two skills she learned in SGA were relationship-building and strong communication skills. “These are crucial. There were many times that I had to speak up for issues that were important to Eastern students, sometimes in difficult forums. At the time, these moments were challenging but it prepared me for the future and taught me to always stay consistent and committed to one’s goal.”

Justin Ahern ’17, of Shelton, who earned his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration/Marketing with a minor in Political Science, is a family attorney in New Haven, CT. He passed the bar exam in 2020 and clerks for family judges at the superior court in New Haven. He also takes pro bono cases for the Connecticut Bar Association.  

Ahern said SGA prepared him to speak up for his peers, stand up for student positions, and work closely with different parts of the University. “SGA prepares students to use their voice,” he noted. “As an attorney, I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity to practice using my voice and standing up for my peers. I also worked at the Student Center information desk, which gave me the opportunity to connect with others on campus and foster positive relationships with students, faculty and staff. It is something that I’ll always use in life — at work and in general.”

Harrison Brooks ’18, of Stratford, earned a dual degree in political science and economics, and is a graduate student at American University studying global security. He will graduate in May 2022 with a master's degree and hopes to continue his work in the emerging technology arena. Brooks said he had a productive year during his term as SGA president in 2016-17.

SGA kicked off the fall semester partnering with the Campus Activity Board to organize a campus campfire, which brought out hundreds of students to Webb Lawn to roast marshmallows and enjoy food trucks from around Connecticut. “That November, I also had the honor of attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Pride Center,” said Brooks. “Many of my predecessors laid important groundwork pushing for the Center’s expansion, and it was great to see that as president of SGA. Later that year, SGA also went to the state legislature and the Board of Regents to push back against proposed tuition hikes.”

Pride Center
Former SGA President Harrison Brooks '18 (third from right) at the 2016 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Pride Center.

Brooks said SGA taught him to engage in empathic listening and seek solutions from all team members. “There were many times during my tenure when we were dealing with sensitive subjects that were personal to many of SGA’s stakeholders,” he explained. “Often, I didn’t have the knowledge or experience to deal with these situations alone. Active listening and conversations with a diverse set of those stakeholders exposed me to new ways of thinking. I think this helped me grow as a leader because it helped me recognize my own limitations and pushed me to actively seek ways to improve on them.”

Tyler Mack ’20, of Bridgeport, who majored in Business Administration, is a legislative aide to the senate president pro tempore of Connecticut, handling the senator’s constituent services. He conducts research with the senator, represents him at meetings and events, and accompanies him when needed around the state. Mack also serves on the city council of Bridgeport, representing the 131st District.

In SGA, Mack served as a senator, treasurer, chairman of the Budget and Management Committee and president. He also served on Eastern’s Master Planning Committee as a student representative. “I took pride in bringing more diversity to SGA and making it more relatable to all students, especially students of color. I believe that was my biggest impact on SGA and I am proud to say after joining SGA in 2015, the number of SGA senators of color continued to grow.”

Tyler Mack

SGA President Tyler Mack ’20 (second from right) and OLAS President Freddy Cruz ’18 (far right) join other university students to visit with former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (third from left) at the New England Board of Higher Education summit.

Mack says his time in SGA built his confidence. “While on campus, I had meetings with the dean of students, vice president of student affairs and the president of the University. Now when I’m with the mayor of my city, senate president of Connecticut, governors and U.S. senators, I’m not overwhelmed or nervous because I know I belong. SGA gave me the opportunity to testify and fight for funding in the State Capitol, it allowed me to travel and meet governors. It allowed me to learn that I can just be myself in every situation.”

Matt Hicks ’15, of Wallingford, majored in political science. He now serves as assistant director for orientation and student transition at the University of Maryland, where he manages 125 sections of a first-year seminar course for new students. He develops curriculum, trains faculty and staff instructors and facilitates a student leadership development program.

Like other SGA presidents, Hicks served in a variety of capacities during his four years in SGA. “I am most proud of the work that I did to consistently increase the funding available to clubs and organizations,” said Hicks, including the introduction of the Warriors with Initiative funding model, which allowed clubs to earn additional funding each semester. “I believe clubs and organizations are the heart of the Eastern community, and we did a great job of empowering students to build community for each other.”

Hicks said his SGA experience helped him to develop important skills he uses daily. “In my current role, I lead teams of 30-75 individuals. The experience I gained developing the leadership skills of senators and E-Board members while SGA president was critical in helping develop conflict resolution skills, time management and the ability to coach and mentor others.”

Camp Hazen

SGA members attend leadership training at Camp Hazen in fall 2019. Left to right, kneeling: Arely Martinez-Medina, Ariana Perez, Daniel Castillo; left to right, standing: Ellie Foss, Miriam Espino, Kyle Garneau, Nour Kalbouneh, Theara Chea, Yineira Lopez, Samantha St. John, Nick Brink and advisor Candace DeAngelis

Per Bjornstad ’14, of Darien, majored in political science. Today, he serves as an advocacy and external engagement specialist for the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards in Washington, D.C. He is responsible for monitoring policy proposals and legislation that may affect the regulation of architecture in the construction environment. “One of the most important responsibilities of SGA president is being able to listen to and respect other opinions,” said Bjornstad. “With thousands of students on campus, there were plenty of moments where I had a different opinion and disagreed on issues. I think it was important then and is just as important now in my professional career, to listen to and really respect one another.” 

Judy Frankel ’12, of Brookfield, also majored in political science. For the past six years, Frankel has worked in different positions at the University of Connecticut’s School of Pharmacy. This January she began serving as an assessment manager at the University of Saint Joseph School of Pharmacy, where she is responsible for managing data.

In her first year at Eastern, Frankel was the SGA shuttle head, running the shuttle back and forth to the Eastbrook Mall. As a sophomore, she served as chair of the Student Issues Committee. In her junior year, Frankel became treasurer halfway through the year when the original treasurer stepped down. As SGA president in her senior year, she made it her mission to unite the student government and create a better sense of community within the senate. “My biggest accomplishment while president was filling the Senate with creative and energetic students to represent the Eastern community.”

Frankel said SGA taught her public speaking, event planning, and organizational leadership skills. “SGA gave me the opportunity to hone these skills and strengthen them. By being in SGA, I learned I love the workings of government and want to be a part of that in my career. In response to this, I got my master’s degree in public administration from Northeastern University.”

Wiley Dawson ’12, of Bridgeport, who majored in history and social sciences, serves as assistant director of the Center for Career Development at the University of Connecticut’s Hartford campus. He is the primary contact for career services for undergraduate and graduate students, providing students with various career services, and is liaison with internal and external partners to expand career access to students.

“My biggest accomplishment while serving as SGA president was establishing the Student Government Association Endowed Scholarship in 2011, which is awarded to a student who is involved in campus activities. Another noteworthy accomplishment was the inaugural fall pep rally that kicks off the fall athletic season for the University.”

Dawson said the skills he gained from his SGA experience were critical to his early career progress. “Those skills were professionalism, accountability, critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership and teamwork. SGA helped me grow as a leader by identifying my strengths and my weaknesses as a leader. The SGA advisors Michele Delaney and Christopher Ambrosio also coached and mentored me as I enhanced my skills and provided me a framework for future success. Ultimately, leadership is knowing when to listen attentively, be assertive and advocate for others. The most important thing I learned from my SGA presidency was the importance of accountability.”

Written by Dwight Bachman