In an academic year at the University of Georgia unlike any before, the Belong executive ticket plans on ensuring that all students feel a sense of community and belonging if elected in the 2021 Student Government Association election.
Carter Marks, Belong’s candidate for president, said the moment he knew he wanted to run was when he learned that orientation for the 2020-2021 academic year was moved online. Marks, who deeply values community and connection among students, wanted to ensure that incoming freshmen have the same opportunities for the experiences he had.
“By the end of, really, the first semester [of freshman year], I completely found my passion, and that passion is making sure students feel like they have a community and feel like they have a home,” Marks said.
One of the first ways Marks got involved in the UGA community was through the Myers Community Council, where he met Jasmine Gresham, Belong’s candidate for vice president.
Gresham said coming from a predominantly Black community to a predominantly white campus was a culture shock, and she found it hard to find representation at UGA. Despite this, Gresham said she did not struggle, and like Marks, quickly found a diverse community of her own and had an amazing freshman year.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began during her sophomore year, Gresham began experiencing mental health struggles which she was able to overcome through love and support in the UGA community.
“If I can make sure that every single person that comes to the university has a little bit of more help when it comes to those mental health struggles, and when it comes to finding their communities and really diving into the multicultural services programs and diving into the programs or services offered by the offices of student diversity, then I want to be a part of that,” Gresham said. “If I can just make one student feel a little bit better coming to this university when I’m gone, then I feel like I've done my job.”
“Belong” in the community
Marks said the ticket name “Belong” comes from the trio’s experiences finding where they belong within the UGA community, combined with their goal of helping other students find their place.
Shelly Chummar, who is running for treasurer, also experienced culture shock when she came to UGA, but unlike Marks and Gresham, she struggled to find a community to support her in the beginning.
“I simply could not find people who were similar to me, just in the sense of what they looked like, and that was the biggest struggle for me to identify with the community that was that no one looked like me,” Chummar said. “I think the only way that I got through that was finding people who just were there to support me, regardless of what I looked like, regardless of what I stood for. And I think when Carter asked me to join the ticket, it was like, ‘This is my chance to make others feel like they don't feel the way I did when I came to UGA.’”
Marks and Gresham have prior experience in SGA through First-Year Forum, while Chummar does not. Chummar said Belong wants to change the way SGA is viewed as an “inward-facing organization.”
Marks said their ticket has spoken with over 250 campus leaders, and each time they have a conversation — whether it be with students involved in SGA or campus administrators — they record it in a document that is now 90 pages long.
Important conversations have been with the Disability Resource Center about staying accessible after the pandemic ends, the Bengali and Pakistani Student Associations on their inability to eat most food options in the dining halls, Designated Dawgs, a service that offers free rides to students on Thursday and Friday nights, as well as Alex English, president of UGA’s NAACP chapter.
Campaigning and COVID
Gresham said it’s been difficult campaigning during the pandemic, especially considering the SGA rule of two campaign members at a table at a time versus the crowds that naturally would form in the past, as well as maintaining raw personal connections.
“It's been difficult, I'm not gonna lie. Like, it's very different than anything we've ever experienced before. I know people kept throwing around the word unprecedented, but we really are in unprecedented times,” Gresham said.
While Athens may be a temporary home to UGA students, Gresham said it is a permanent home to everyone in the surrounding communities, and students should be mindful of every action because it is a “trickle down effect.”
Gresham also said there is validity to past student criticisms of SGA, but she said Belong will stand out because of their unity and positive message. She said a large part of the dissatisfaction students feel toward SGA is on account of the disconnect between them.
“We want to make sure that that disconnect gets smaller and smaller throughout our time in office. We recognize that that's not going to happen within a year,” Gresham said, “but I think that what pushes us is we truly believe that we will get things done [so] that students will feel like SGA has done something.”
Speaking for herself as a Black student, Gresham said she was hurt by the recent comparison made by presidential candidate Jeremiah de Sesto between the civil rights movement and the SGA ticket Bridge and that all of the Black community’s feelings on the matter are valid.
The Instagram story featured Bridge members marching to “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, with de Sesto writing, “55 years ago, my hero John Lewis marched across the Edmund Pettus BRIDGE for change. Today, we strive to do the same for this campus and our community. Let’s @bridge.uga.” The post garnered criticism among several UGA students, and Bridge issued an apology in an Instagram story which has since been deleted.
“Was I hurt by it? Absolutely. I'm a Black student on this campus. It happens. It shouldn't happen, but it does. But I do also recognize that someone can intend one thing, and it's just not isn't received well, and the best thing we can do in those situations is hold each other accountable, and then move forward,” Gresham said.
Marks said he encourages students to do their homework and read about all three platforms, and Belong has made a commitment to do every single thing on their platform.
“I want students to know that if they vote for us, we are never going to stop working for them,” Marks said.