By Priyam Saraf
An email calling interested candidates to participate in the SIPA Student Association (SIPASA) had just appeared in the “Important and Unread” section of my inbox. Sitting on the 4th floor chairs on November 4th 2010, I asked the second-years sitting beside my chair, “Should I do it?” Thomas, a concerned second-year student, cautioned, “It’s a huge time commitment, you will work with strong and opinionated personalities, and you will be held responsible for anything that goes wrong.”
Despite the warning, I began to think about what I would do if I were elected the president of a body representing more than 1,300 students. I didn’t know much about SIPASA and its mandate then, but working with a large-scale team of my peers to help improve student life at SIPA appealed to me. I held a campaign, and on November 10, 2010, I was voted into office as the 2011 MPA president.
A year later, I know that Thomas was absolutely right, but also very wrong.
Over the course of my tenure as MPA president in 2011, I realized two things. First, that more than eighty percent of SIPASA tasks are more behind-the-scenes and operational than they appear. Effectively managing a budget the size of the $60,000 per semester can be a significant administrative challenge. Second, translating an array of tasks into memorable experiences for students requires tapping into the experiences of the 18-person board, which is a microcosm of SIPA.
SIPASA tasks fall into two broad categories – the glamorous, and the less glamorous. SIPASA members spend a lot of time doing less visible work both to manage essential student services and bring about the bigger changes students want.
For instance, SIPASA recently organized the “SIPAuction,” the first student-based auction at SIPA, which raised funds for the class gift. The fun ambience, more than sixty donations, and excited student bidding were easy to observe. What wasn’t was the detailed room layout, the scores of emails back and forth to bidders, auctioneers and the donors, budget discussions, and late-night calls to plan the event.
At the monthly SIPASA-Deans meetings, SIPASA members have raised student feedback around dual degree representation, career coaching, capstone options, café services, security around campus, student satisfaction survey, and access to the alumni database among others. “SIPASA provides an important two-way linkage between SIPA students and the Administration,” says Troy Eggers, Senior Associate Dean.
In 2011, SIPASA received a petition from dual degree students about addressing redundant facilities fees. SIPASA invited a dual degree representative to present these issues to the board and the Deans. Openness to change and operational flexibility are important to represent the needs of programs with unique needs. “Having an EMPA representative on SIPASA helped to bridge gaps for EMPA students who usually only attend SIPA on Saturdays and therefore miss the full range of experiences that SIPA offers,” says Philip Tuson, the EMPA representative.
On hearing that student groups at SIPA don’t interact often, SIPASA set the ball rolling on a SIPASA Teambuilding Workshop and a SIPA Student Groups Leadership Conference for 2012. These initiatives will bring together executives from each student group to help form deeper connections, refine leadership skills, and share good practices.
While we were able to drive these initiatives to completion, some others that we started remain for the next board to complete. One is improving the food at Alice’s Café. While we started working on this issue through implementing a survey to collect student feedback, we did not have enough time to achieve the change we wanted to. There are other initiatives that require significant structural changes, such as streamlining cumbersome registration processes and potentially opening up a dual MBA option for MPA students.
Looking back, Thomas was right in that all this work required constant juggling of priorities. Over the last year, I have perhaps spent more time working for SIPASA than on any other course or commitment. How to balance SIPASA work is an ongoing struggle, one learns how to prioritize and manage time more effectively. I was lucky to work with strong, hard-working and driven individuals who could effectively propel initiatives and challenge groupthink.
But the process of choosing among multiple ideas and different visions for an initiative required consensus building, mediation and sometimes, conflict-resolution. It was tough, but as policy professionals who want to change the world, why not start with SIPA?
I assumed the presidency believing that a “a bold onset is half the battle won.” At the end of my term, I have come to appreciate the importance of a less glamorous definition of courage. Courage is to keep working a tricky relationship, to continue seeking solutions to difficult problems, to listen honestly, and to stay focused during stressful periods. I thank everyone for the support and guidance given to SIPASA during 2011, and I wish the 2012 SIPASA board the very best.
Priyam Saraf is a second-year Master of Public Administration student. The article first appeared in the December 6 issue of Communiqué.