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New Wave Of Progressive Legislation Shaping UPUA, Penn State’s Future

The University Park Undergraduate Association has a robust budget and more than 100 representatives advocating for Penn State students every day.

Despite all the difficulties that meeting, voting, and writing legislation virtually has brought, there have been more positive changes made both inside and outside of the organization in the past year than ever before. One of these changes includes the prominent increased advocacy for underrepresented communities.

Just recently, a bill passed through the assembly that will fund name change vouchers for students. For some, something as simple as their name may not hold all that much value. But UPUA passed this bill in hopes of helping transgender and non-binary students through a potentially life-changing process.

“I think what separates Bill 17-15 from many of the UPUA’s advocacy calls in the past is that it directly puts something into motion,” UPUA President Zach McKay said. “Resolutions speak on behalf of the student body, policies change governing documents, but bills use the student-fee money…to then give back to the students.”

The idea for this bill has been in the works for more than six months. Lion PRIDE representative Ryan Loscalzo said that through his research for another project, he found that the University of Iowa’s student government passed a similar bill in 2016.

“I realized our university didn’t have any of that. I looked through the resources we had and realized it costs a pretty decent amount of money to go through this process of just changing your name legally,” Loscalzo said.

In the past year, the number of representatives in UPUA working on initiatives to specifically support the LGBTQ+ community at Penn State has more than doubled. A new group, the Justice & Equity Committee, has also been formed to better support and advocate for all underrepresented students on campus.

Some representatives said that in the past, however, there has been a culture of toxicity and moral superiority within UPUA that has made it hard for folks to feel welcome in the assembly, let alone motivated enough to actually do work.

“I feel like Lexy and Zach [UPUA’s vice president and president] really value the idea of transparency and, most importantly, giving people the power to speak up for themselves,” Loscalzo said. “This year, the whole environment is different.”

Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go. Both inside the assembly, in trying to create a work environment that supports all students instead of tearing them down, and out, in amplifying the voices of students who need to be heard the most.

“I think types of vouchers like this are an example of other ways UPUA can get involved and promote justice and equity initiatives across campus, and across the commonwealth eventually,” representative Noah Robertson said. “I think the university may lack in connecting with people and realizing on a day-to-day basis what really matters in a queer students’ experience, or what can be impactful. A name, for example, is super impactful for someone who is going through that experience and seeking that name change.”

UPUA is partnering with Penn State’s Student Legal Services on distributing the name change vouchers. UPUA’s Justice & Equity chair, Najee Rodriguez, said the support of Kelly Mroz, Student Legal Service’s director, has been critical in getting these vouchers passed.

“I have never experienced a university administrator as receptive as she is to helping students,” Rodriguez said.

There are already other plans in place to continue creating similar legislation and change to better the university as a whole. Some representatives are currently working on initiatives related to increasing the number of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus and raising awareness about where these restrooms are located.

Regardless of what comes next for UPUA, a few things are clear. The organization itself is changing. It’s becoming far more progressive, open, and strong in its advocacy work. And it’s pivoting to advocate each and every day for the students who need support the most.

“Every student here is here for their education. But they can’t really fully utilize and be proud to be a Penn Stater if these inequities on campus aren’t closed,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s important that there’s a lot of passion and like-minded individuals who want to see that change. We see that there are flaws in the system that need to be changed. I’ll be frank. I don’t feel as if in the past the work done in UPUA has been as impactful as this is and this new chapter in terms of directly providing this sort of relief to students.”

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a junior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at [email protected]

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