An SGA that works: Interview with Nathaniel Fish and Collins Kandongwe

By Ülvi Gitaliyev

The following interview was conducted in person by Ülvi Gitaliyev on 02.02.2022. Parts of it have been edited or cut out for the sake of clarity.

Q: You ran once before in 2021, as a candidate for SGA president. Since then, what has changed and what problems still persist in Berea College?

NF: That is an excellent question. So first off, since then, a lot has happened, but a lot of it is actually very positive. As vice-president of finance, we were able to put into place a lot of new policies and a lot of new regulations. One of the best things that we started on is really dividing up the different parts of SGA and the reasons that SGA exists. So, in the first place, just really getting back to the basics of what is SGA, why do you have an SGA and what should SGA do? We looked around and we felt that one of the really important things that we do actually have power over, and this is really unique for Berea College is that we have so much power within the administration. We asked ourselves: How can we actually use this power to change the current environment for the betterment of the students? We did that in two ways. One, we worked on the parking issue with Student Life and Public Safety, and the other one was the visitation policy. A big part of the visitation policy is that the students have pushed for change for a long time, and we, as the administration were able to really breakthrough and get it done. Unfortunately, it is at a standstill because there’s no real leadership at the moment.

Another one is looking back at this redefining what it means to mean that you are both a peer to students, but also have that special ability to go meet with the administration. That was one of the things that we handled well with this last administration and working on setting up actual specific roles. That is something that I want to expand. My administration is really looking at how we can make it so that students know this SGA and how to interact with SGA. Some students don’t even know that they can get funding from SGA and that’s not their fault. That’s our fault. So, we need to take responsibility for everyone not being able to understand or know about these opportunities.

Another thing that’s gone well is of course COVID. So obviously with Omricon, there are a lot more cases, but thanks to Omricon, the lethality of COVID is going down that will open the door to really reaching out, branching out and trying to find ways to honestly get students off campus safely and with COVID protocols in place. A lot of students have been stuck, stuck inside, stuck on campus, stuck without having a place to go. I feel it’s really important for mental health just to get a break, to be able to have SGA lead these trips outside of campus and have these opportunities to get away from the stress.

So those are some of the things that have gone well, but other things have not gone well. One of the things that Collins and I are really going to try and push is creating concrete jobs, concrete job titles, concrete job descriptions, and really letting everyone know this is what this person does in the SGA. This is what this person does and really sets up a legacy even beyond just an upcoming semester. Sort of taking a step back from that right now, one of the key things that we are also looking at policy-wise is bridging that administration gap.

I was a part of the SGA administration with Destiny Goodson. Goodson was having town hall meetings. We had set up town hall meetings between students and the administration and faculty. This was great because it allowed students to really directly talk with faculty, directly talk with the administration to understand why they have these sorts of points of view, but it also allowed the administration to look back and understand how the students are feeling. So that worked well when we were having a lot of new policies and people asked, “okay, why is this one here? Why isn’t this one here?”

Currently, the new COVID policy is not so much of an issue except when it comes to cases in which we have students who get infected. Another one Collins and I are hoping to improve on finding is a way to create a safe environment for students who get COVID. Students like nursing students, students like elementary school students are forced to go out into the community. This is part of their college career. This is part of their college job. It is important that the College stands with these students in protecting them, saying, you won’t fall behind in your classes, you won’t be kicked out. You won’t have to take a leave of absence. The College will stand behind you and provide you with a way to keep going through the semester because the College was the one who put them in that situation in the first place. So that is one of the things where I can see where the SGA could step in.

Q: How do your previous experiences qualify you for the role of vice-president?

CK: As a student chaplain and working with Code Together Club that I found here College, the experiences they gave me are very imperative for a leader. Working as a chaplain, I was able to work with students who were in situations of distress or their situations. So being somebody who they can talk to and being somebody who can be there to support them was a very important thing. It gave me the ability to grow my emotional intelligence, which is being able to empathize with other people as they speak to you, able to put yourself in their place. If that were me, how would I feel? I believe not that advice applies to everybody. Therefore, to be able to understand and analyze somebody’s needs and provide for them what they need, not according to what you need, but according to what they need, gave me the skill to interact with people from different backgrounds and interact with people from different religions.

One of the things I love about Berea College is its diversity. It has people from different places and getting to interact with people from different religions helped me as an individual to grow in my knowledge of other individuals and other religions. I personally believe there’s a lot we can learn from each other. As a student, to get an overall perspective, to be able to understand people, because I don’t believe we can understand everybody, but to understand people from different walks of life, from different places and be able to associate with them in a way that builds the community. The ability to be able to organize and put together events is a rare thing to have. People come to the event; they enjoy themselves, and you allow them to help them relax with anything that they’re going through. Also, it helps me to manage my time.

I was working 20 hours a week. Most of those hours were things that you scheduled yourself and did for yourself. So having that helped me to enhance my skills of time management and personal management, which is important when working in Code Together.

Coming back to Code Together, it helped me identify the needs of the computer science students in terms of where our students are looking for internships. What do they need that I can be able to help them in my capacity? What have I learned and which people can I bring on board to help me accomplish my goal, which is to also help other students? One thing that I feel is important for a leader to have is the ability to be able to identify people that are better at something that you are not and bring them on your team so that they’re able to work on certain things.

That’s one thing that I had to identify. I had to identify people that have done what I have not been able to do. Creating a leadership structure for the club is to be able to identify people that have done more than I have done and have learned more than I have learned. I need to be observant and identify people that I can work with and identify people’s needs. A vision is not built by one person. A vision is built by a community of individuals. If I have a vision of something I want to do, I need other people to help me to build that vision.

No man is an island, so anything you build together is as people. For me, working with Code Together and working with students brought together this understanding. With this philosophy and mindset of working together in a community, you’re able to build something bigger and more valuable. We all have value. And when we bring each other to the table, we’re able to produce something that is beautiful. And that’s what I personally believe makes the world as it is. It’s not like the world is not one big rock, but there are different things. There are rocks; there’s soil; there are trees and there are houses. There are different things in the world that make things beautiful. So as a leader, I come with a mindset to identify that I cannot do it all on my own. I need other people to help me do it. I identify that other people are important for me to achieve whatever I want to achieve and everybody is valuable.

Q: As vice-president of finance, what were your achievements and what do you hope to build in if you become president?

NF: As the vice-president of finance, first and foremost, I was a part of the Executive Council. I was a part of Destiny Goodson’s Executive Council and a part of Obinna’s Executive Council. Working within those two councils, I was able to have conversations with both the Executive Council, the Senate, as well as going out into the community and really trying to provide a bridge between SGA and the students. Also, in these executive councils was where we made these decisions, such as deciding to pursue visitation policy reform and deciding to pursue other such policies. I remember with Destiny Goodson’s administration, actually, Obinna and I were able to do a giveaway in Kenya. So really a lot of different, diverse stuff.

Q: Why did you and Nathaniel Fish decide to run together and how do you two complement each other?

CK: Firstly, I met Fish Nathaniel Fish in my freshman year. We work together. I was working as an apprentice farm and I worked very closely with Fish. That was the summer of my freshman year. Almost all the things that we did, we did them together; they even kind of gave us a nickname in the whole farm crew as “the sales guys.” So, we did almost everything together in terms of work. And when it came to work, we were able to focus on the task that was given at hand – be able to start something. This may seem like bragging, but now if you go to the College firm and ask about Fish and Collins, we were the people that did most of the fence clearing. I feel like we have the record of clearing the most fence that was ever done at the college farm. We make a pretty good pair. As an individual, he is really interested in people and we see him around Campus, doing service, helping people around and serving in the SGA. He’s somebody that I can depend on.

I don’t have a strong background in terms of politics. So going back to the idea that I said at the beginning, when you’re not good at something, find somebody that is better at that thing and join forces with that person so that you are able to work together. I was able to identify that Fish knows more than I do about the student government and therefore, to partner with him and for us to run with him, there’s this conglomeration of my ideas and my philosophies about leadership and my service and my knowledge that I have. Bringing together his experience, his ideas, we should be able to work together as a team and accomplish the goal that he set. Like I said, I’ve had working experience with him in the professional environment and that was really an amazing experience. I would work with him again over and over again.

Q: The election is soon and many students are still undecided; do you have a message for them?

NF: Number one, we are very committed to finishing the 24 hours visitation reform and breaking down those gender barriers in college housing. Another one that I am personally passionate about is working with the College to find ways to support undocumented students.

DACA students don’t have a safety net from the College. That actually prevents many DACA students from even trying to attend college because they don’t know if they will get that entire four years out of university. So, we’ll push the College administration to say that they will continue to enroll you through the entire four years, even if DACA is rescinded because we are all made of one blood, which is the College’s model. They definitely need to stand by it. Another even harder push is really trying to work with the College to make it so you don’t have to be DACA to come to Berea because, at the end of the day, I don’t care about your paperwork. What I care about is if you are a good Berean. The administration should admit students based on whether or not they will be good students. More communication between the student government and students will bridge these gaps. The College says you are safe and so, you should not have to worry.

As the summer President, I took students across Kentucky to malls and Kings Island, just really finding ways to bring a little sparkle of joy into a lot of the student lives. On a personal level, I am committed to the student government. I’m committed to the students. I’ve known Collins for a long time now and we’ve worked really well together. And we feel that because of both our involvement in the SGA, our ability to look beyond SGA and understand the SGA from an outside perspective, we really do provide the best opportunity for students to finish off the spring semester strong and to work at setting up the SGA again for next year to come back even stronger in the fall.

Fish and Collins’s full manifesto can be found here.

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