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10 Questions With Student Body Vice President Najee Rodriguez

Najee Rodriguez, a first-generation college student, is officially Penn State’s new student-body vice president.

As vice president, Rodriguez is responsible for chairing all UPUA meetings and sitting on various administrative task forces. Now, he’s finally getting a chance to stand up and have a voice in a room full of people to advocate for all students.

We sat down with Rodriguez to learn more about his diverse background, his goals for UPUA, and his favorite Creamery flavor is.

Onward State: Why and how did you first get involved with UPUA?

Najee Rodriguez: I think for me it all started at the involvement fair. Obviously, I did background research. I was involved in student government in high school, and I saw that UPUA was, of course, our student government here.

What drew me in was based on a lot of the projects that were on UPUA’s website and just through the people I talked to at the involvement fair. They talked about the impact that UPUA had on the lives of students in regards to advocacy to administration and in regards to advocating for students that truly needed it the most. The ability for UPUA to actually and tangibly change the lives of students stuck with me.

OS: What made you decide to run for vice president?

NR: I’ve been considered by some people to be considered an “unconventional” candidate given my background, and there is some truth to that.

My dad was absent for most of my life, and my mom as well. I think there’s a lot of adversity and hardship that a lot of students can relate to in that sense. The advocacy and the representation that’s within UPUA are very important to me. I’ve always stated throughout the campaign trail and before that my priority has been student poverty, whether that be food, medical, or housing insecurity because those are all things that I’ve experienced.

I ran because I think it’s important that there are people in the room who have faced hardships that students to relate to so that they can see how these people have grown to be independent and have grown to go on with their life. I want to be in the room to advocate for students who don’t have food, or insurance, or stable housing. These are issues that need to be confronted at a student government level, and these are things that haven’t really been happening in the past.

Also, I think it’s really important to have a queer person of color in these conversations with majority white administrators to really represent and advocate on behalf of these underrepresented communities that aren’t really ever, in the past, looked at or considered by universities.

OS: What are some of your favorite projects or initiatives you’ve gotten to work on while being in UPUA this far?

NR: One of the projects I’m really passionate about that’s coming to fruition is the “Every Student Belongs Here” banner initiative. It’s essentially ensuring that Penn State takes a stand and that there is that visual representation of students from different underrepresented backgrounds.

Essentially what these banners state is that indigenous students belong here, LGBTQIA+ students belong here, Black Lives Matter, and so on. These statements are important because it shows that Penn State is really serious about changing the way that their perceived and that they’re serious about addressing the lack of equity.

My other favorite project I would say is the UHS Wellness Fund that I’ve been working on in the past year. This wellness fund would allow free physicals, free checkups, free and subsidized prescriptions for students who are uninsured or have faulty insurance to really close those health equities that exist.

OS: What does equity and inclusion at Penn State mean to you?

NR: I want to start off by talking about the Justice & Equity Committee and the importance of that within UPUA because, obviously, that’s the first committee of its kind that’s permanent and standing.

We finally have a committee within the organization that is addressing the real and paramount issues of justice and inequality at the university. These are issues that should have been addressed years ago and just haven’t been. We need advocacy for these students from underrepresented communities that have felt silenced by the university, that have felt ignored, that have felt left behind, that really don’t feel like their part of the greater Penn State community. That’s a problem.

With equity and inclusion, it’s important that we address the deficits that do exist. We also have to push for racial justice at a predominantly white institution. When I think of equity and inclusion at Penn State, I think of a university that takes students of color seriously, that takes students from marginalized backgrounds and identities seriously. There need to be real and strategic plans for the future to ensure that students are supported and supplemented.

OS: What struggles do you think students have faced in the last year amidst the pandemic and how has UPUA helped?

NR: This has been an unprecedented time in history, especially for students at Penn State whose parents have lost their jobs, who have faced health care crises, who have had enormous mental health and anxiety concerns, due to the effects of the pandemic.

UPUA has done a lot of work in the realms of mental health and in ensuring that CAPS is of course accessible to students. UPUA has of course tangibly provided mutual aid, and other forms of unorthodox methods of relief for students like school supplies packs, the “We cAre” initiative, LionCash vouchers, and more. We’ve also been in those meetings with administrators advocating for leniency with alternative grading for students, but these are all things UPUA has done to ensure that we are alleviating the immense impacts of the pandemic on students.

OS: Who is your mentor, or someone you look up to, in the Penn State community?

NR: I would say Gregory Nolan, my academic advisor. He knows my personal story and my background, he’s also my boss for the Liberal Arts Peer Advisor Program, and he’s helped me immensely with just getting through college as a first-generation college student. He’s honestly really taken up that mentor mantle that I’ve needed because I don’t really have anyone else to go to.

I would also like to add that Lexy Pathickal is someone I’ve looked up to. As a woman of color, she’s gone through so much, and it’s been inspiring to see what she’s done and accomplished. She’s given me hope in the future of Penn State, and she’s someone that I take great pride in being a friend to.

OS: What has been your favorite class at Penn State and why?

NR: Nuclear Weapons In International Affairs with Roseann McManus has been my favorite class to take. One, I’m a national security major, so I need to know about these things because it’s my future. But two, I love learning about nuclear weapons. It’s a really cool class. You learn about how nuclear weapons are created, the history behind them, the future threats of nuclear weapons, and proliferation. It’s one of the best classes I’ve ever taken, and I love Professor McManus.

OS: If you could choose a fictional character or celebrity to serve as the next university president, who would you choose and why?

NR: Elle Woods from “Legally Blonde.” I feel like Elle Woods would be a great fictional character to be president. She would be able to defy the doubt that Warner would give her to become president. I think she would be very successful given her legal background as a lawyer.

Also, she goes to Capitol Hill in “Legally Blonde 2,” so she also has the ideas of what it means to be passionate, know the law, and navigate the bureaucracy. I think she’d be a phenomenal president.

OS: What is your favorite Creamery flavor?

NR: Death By Chocolate, 100%. Nobody can tell me otherwise that there’s a better flavor.

OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you were a dinosaur, which would you be and why?

NR: I would say a pterodactyl because I would have the ability to fly. And you can eat more easily by swooping up your prey from the sky.

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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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