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‘The Honor Of A Lifetime’: UPUA President Zach McKay’s Letter To The Student Body

Friends, 

Thank you for allowing me to represent you to Penn State’s administration, elected officials, and many others as your University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) student body president this past year. 

You may think my favorite part of the job was the endless meetings with those individuals — it wasn’t. Instead, I most enjoyed meeting, collaborating with, and being challenged by phenomenal student advocates. Senior Erin Brown inspired and enabled our administration to take a strong stance on sexual violence. First-year student Vancie Peacock worked non-stop to address food insecurity holistically, proposing community gardens as a mechanism to provide nutritious, accessible food to any student interested. Divya Jain, Juhi Tanniru, Kelly Matuszewski, and many others allowed me to participate in the Penn State climate justice movement. Nyla Holland’s leadership in calling for racial, social, and environmental justice inspired me beyond belief. The list goes on and on. 

While these students’ accomplishments are superhuman, they’re still people — just like yourself. They each committed to making our university better than they found it. You can too. 

This year, collaborations brought forth several new UPUA departments, including Environmental Sustainability, Civic Engagement, Health and Wellness, and Rights and Equity. These departments open doors for students interested in providing their peers with vital support, including resources related to sexual and mental health, educational equity, and student tenant rights. I’ve witnessed tenacious students — including some mentioned above — who took advantage of these opportunities to catalyze change. 

These departments — and the UPUA as a whole — are important because they’re who administrators and university staff meet with on a regular basis. The opinion of the student government carries a lot of weight in university policymaking — consider its success in securing alternative grading for students in the wake of COVID-19 and remote instruction not just once, but three times in a row. By equipping student experts like those above with the resources and support of the UPUA, many have been able to make really meaningful changes on campus. 

However, and rather ironically, advocacy I witnessed outside of the UPUA appeared more consistent, more driven, and more pointed than that from within. In the past, many in the UPUA took ideas from other students and student groups and passed them off as their own, failed to consult research, or constituents, or student experts when implementing projects, and hosted informational events for students while failing to call on the university administrators to implement policy changes. The UPUA must empower students and student organizations, advocating alongside, rather than over, those already doing phenomenal work. In the past, we’ve failed to do so. We tried to alter this paradigm this year, but with my retirement (at the ripe age of 22), it’s on the future generations — of both student and student government members — to continue this work. 

This year, we attempted to foster a participatory and transparent student government. We created a weekly newsletter, ensured our meetings are accessible online — live-tweeting Assembly meetings at @UPUA_Assembly and live-streaming our meetings — consistently spoke with student journalists, and asked student experts to challenge us. These are things the student governments of the future can and must do to serve the student body. 

You can keep the UPUA accountable. 

I encourage you to reach out to your UPUA representatives and ask them to listen to your concerns and ideas. You can write your own legislation and ask that they sponsor it. You can even provide public comment at a General Assembly Meeting’s Open Student Forum (or provide a written one to the Speaker of the Assembly) to make your voice heard on a given issue. You can learn more about all of this on the UPUA’s website at www.UPUA.org

The best part about all of these things is that any student can do them. You don’t have to be elected to share your opinion — in fact, your representatives should be actively seeking it out. You don’t have to have student government experience to get involved — trust me, the UPUA needs fresh perspectives and bold ideas, and so long as it continues to encourage transparency and participation, you’ll have a place to share them. Get involved in and take advantage of your student government — it is yours, and it is at your service. 

I am sure that the kindness, empathy, and compassion I saw spill over this campus will forever mark this year as special in Penn State’s history. We’ve proven that as Penn Staters, we stand together through thick and thin and are always stronger as a team — as a pride. 

As you continue on in your journeys, I hope you remember to hold integrity and honesty at the center of everything you do, to always do more than is expected of you, and to treat everyone — everyone — you meet with dignity and respect. Stand up to racism and bigotry wherever you see it and hold those around you accountable for being people of character. Never forget that life is short, and make the most of every day you wake up. Always cherish time with loved ones.

Serving as your president has been the honor of a lifetime. My sincerest congratulations to the Class of 2021 on graduating, and best of luck to each of you as you continue on in your own journeys. Thank you for everything.

For The Glory,

Zachary McKay

2020-21 UPUA Student Body President

Class of 2021

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