For Lewis, UPUA Legitimacy Was Key
When people looked at Hillary Lewis, all they saw was a sorority girl.
How could they know that she was a savvy political veteran, with experience dating back to elementary school? That she’d been the president of her middle school? That to her, the seemingly insurmountable task of making UPUA a legitimate student government wasn’t just an aim, but a reachable attainment?
Now, Lewis can look back and smile because she earned the last laugh, but five years ago, it wasn’t so easy to turn the other cheek.
Three weeks after emerging victorious in a crowded, 6-candidate field, Hillary Lewis experienced the vitriol. While drinking at a bar in Washington D.C., another girl came up to her and berated her.
“You’re nothing but a dumb sorority girl,” she said.
That was hardly an isolated incident.
“Everyone,” Lewis recounts, “was skeptical.” She wasn’t an alum of the defunct USG. She was a sorority girl. Heck, she wasn’t even around when USG dissolved and UPUA was born out of its ashes and a school-wide referendum–she was studying abroad in Spain during that fateful spring of 2006.
But when Lewis returned to Happy Valley, she “started to understand what was going on.”
“USG was stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare,” Lewis said. “They were fighting all the time, and they weren’t getting anything accomplished.”
“I saw a completely defunct organization that wasn’t doing anything to help better Penn State students.”
Even though she recognized the need for change, it still took a little prodding for Lewis to get involved. She remembers Jay Bundy as inspiring her to run that fall, for an at-large position, and, just like Bundy, she won her race. Unlike UPUA’s first elected President, though, Lewis was able to keep that job for more than a fleeting moment, becoming the chair of Government Relations of the nascent organization that quickly found itself in turmoil.
“When our first president wasn’t elected, people definitely questioned the legitimacy of UPUA.”
It didn’t help that Jay Chamberlin, the runner-up in that fall’s election who was appointed to fill Bundy’s shoes, had his own agenda of often-unpopular ideas and a relationship with members of the administration–especially Vice President of Student Affairs Vicky Triponey–that led many on campus to consider him a “stooge,” a charge Lewis denies, though she admits that it was the popular perception.
But Lewis never would’ve risen up that spring to challenge Chamberlin’s leadership and take on the mantle herself if it weren’t for an unlikely source of motivation. Gavin Keirans asked Lewis to be the running mate on his ticket, and Lewis soon realized that wouldn’t be enough for her.
“I figured that if other people have enough faith in me to be their vice president, then I should have the faith in myself to run for president,” Lewis said.
It might not have helped her reputation as a sorority girl that she adopted IFC President Franklin Keller as her running mate, but, in Keller, Lewis found a kindred spirit, someone who wanted to “foster change and empower students” as much as she did.
In the context of today’s UPUA races, with 17-page platforms and million-dollar ideas, Lewis’ campaign platform might seem tame in comparison. Her humble suggestions asked for eLion and ANGEL to be better integrated, for the PSUTXT service to be simplified, for the price of food in the commons to be made uniform, as well as a general inclination to reduce student debt. But most of all, Lewis called for legitimacy, and for UPUA to work with the administration to accomplish student goals.
That Lewis and Keller spent less than any other campaign, just $125, didn’t seem to hurt them any. They didn’t run away with the election by any means–defeating Keirans in his first of three presidential bids by a mere 124 votes in what was as closely contested an election as UPUA has ever had–but years after being the student body president of her middle school, Lewis was once again on top. Quickly, she learned that there would be no time to celebrate, especially as she added a “14-hour-a-day job” to her pursuit of an undergraduate degree as well as a concurrent masters.
Those early days were the toughest for Lewis, who admits that she had “no idea” what she was getting herself into.
“Half of UPUA was former USG senators,” she recalls, “and they wanted UPUA’s constitution to look the same.” Not many presidents have the job of drafting the constitution for their organization, but it quickly became Lewis’ first priority.
“I met with every single assembly member one-on-one,” Lewis said. Fighting through their daily threats to quit, she saw her job was to be a mediator, “getting everyone to stop fighting and work together.”
But Lewis’ reforming of UPUA didn’t end there.
“I spent every single day building legitimacy with Graham Spanier, with other organizations, with alumni, and most importantly with the students. Everyone thought we were a joke, so we had to have gumption.”
That chorus of “everyone,” perhaps ironically, was led by Gavin Keirans, who used his platform at the advocacy group Safeguard Old State to bash Lewis, using the same arguments against her as were made against Chamberlin before.
It was a charge that rang hollow, though, for Lewis. She saw her role as to “act as a liason” between students and the administration, and the town. “It’s what you’re supposed to do,” she said.
It didn’t end there, though, with former members of USG writing into the Collegian “and calling me a communist.”
“We were an infantile organization,” Lewis remembers, and that’s why she couldn’t focus on the criticism. “You’ve got to focus and motivate and get it done.”
That the objections came from beyond State College made it difficult. As president of UPUA, Lewis wasn’t even invited to a conference of the Association of Big Ten Students, which brought together student governments at all the schools in the conference, because they found that Penn State’s new student government was “undemocratic.” Making matters worse–Safeguard Old State was invited to the meeting. And when the ABTS offered to let Lewis come, but not representing UPUA, and she turned down that slap in the face, Safeguard Old State was there with another batch of criticism.
But when the next spring rolled around, and the Association finally recognized UPUA as legitimate–inviting Lewis to its spring conference–it was the culmination of all Lewis had worked so hard for in the intervening 6 months–and building that relationship, as well as one with Safeguard Old State, had become chief goals of her administration.
But she had also presided over a UPUA that added fall elections for freshmen, to give that class a voice in student government. She had worked with the athletic department to streamline the student ticket procedure. And when Vicky Triponey abruptly resigned, Lewis sat on the board to replace her, speaking with and asking questions to every single candidate to fill the role of Vice President of Student Affairs.
“I don’t think UPUA would’ve survived if it wasn’t for the certain type of person I am,” Lewis said, without a hint of braggadocio in her voice.
But as she looks back to Penn State, in what will be the fourth UPUA election since hers, Lewis often questions the direction of the organization. Last December, she had the opportunity to attend the Board of Trustees meeting, and found that neither Christian Ragland nor Colleen Smith were in attendance. “I thought it was in really bad taste,” Lewis said.
And with student government at Penn State quickly approaching another crossroads, Lewis offers an easy fix:
“Maybe all UPUA needs is another sorority girl to get its act together.”