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10 Questions With New Student Body President Najee Rodriguez & Vice President Sydney Gibbard

After a historic win, Najee Rodriguez and Sydney Gibbard were officially elected as Penn State’s next student body president and vice president.

Last month, the duo won an uncontested race to serve as president and vice president for UPUA’s 17th Assembly. Rodriguez, who served as student body vice president last year, will be the first queer person of color to serve as Penn State’s student body president.

We sat down with Rodriguez and Gibbard to learn more about their long-term friendship, their goals for the future, and their emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion at Penn State.

Onward State: How and why did you first get involved with UPUA?

Najee Rodriguez: Even on the hardest days, I always think back to this question and it gets me through the most challenging days. To start, I first came across the UPUA at the involvement fair, but beforehand, I was really involved in my student government in high school and was pretty sure that I wanted to continue the student government streak.

The more I learned about the UPUA through talking to the volunteers at the involvement fair and looking at the website, the more I knew I wanted to get involved. I believed in the UPUA and its mission, which is to better student life for all undergraduate students, from the very beginning.

The UPUA has a stake in extremely vital issues that are pertinent to student life. I want to bring an unconventional perspective to the organization, and leverage its access to the university’s administration to advance issues that I am so passionate about.

When I reflect on the question as to why I got involved, it keeps me going, and pushes me to advance the good work that needs to be done.

Sydney Gibbard: I first got involved with UPUA as a member of the First Year Council during my very first week at Penn State. I was involved with student government in high school and loved the relationships I built with other students and admin at my school, so I wanted to do something like that at Penn State. Little did I know how much I would grow as a person and how much I would learn in my time thus far.

OS: Why did you decide to run for president and vice president together?

NR: I love Sydney, and she really is one of my best friends at Penn State. We have known each other since our first year at Penn State, which was also our first year together within the UPUA. She knows me inside and out, and we’ve grown together. We are both passionate about the UPUA and the work that it can accomplish, and I’m inspired each and every day by her motivation and drive. It also helps that we were roommates during our second year at Penn State.

We basically know everything about each other, whether it be our strengths and weaknesses, our passions, and almost everything about our personal life. I asked Sydney because, in my eyes, she was the only choice. And if she didn’t agree, I don’t think I would’ve run.

She won’t just be my partner-in-advocacy this upcoming year, but she will be my partner for life, and I knew that going into this. If she didn’t have a boyfriend and if I wasn’t gay, we’d probably be a perfect match!

SG: Najee and I have been best friends since being in First Year Council together, and we even lived together last year as sophomores. We have an incredibly unique bond and partnership, and our strengths and weaknesses complement each other so well. Najee challenges me to stand up for what I believe in, and I bring organization and an analytical side to everything. We both have inspired each other in many ways over the past few years, and it felt very natural to run together.

OS: What projects or initiatives are you most excited about for the upcoming school year?

NR: I cannot put my excitement into words for this upcoming year. I want to see through the completion of a new office in Student Affairs to support students in poverty. This would create a place that offers programs, initiatives, and support for students that need it the most that will hopefully last years after I graduate!

I’m excited to pursue and explore advocacy for a common student health fee, which is common at other Big Ten universities. In theory, it would allow for universal coverage for basic, non-emergency health services for students at Penn State’s University Health Services. I think that the Wellness Fund, that I helped establish in the 16th Assembly [and] aims to cover UHS services for uninsured students or students with high co-pays and deductibles, would potentially be able to simultaneously cover services that may not be covered by a common student health fee — achieving the goal of universal health equity for all students if implemented.

I’m also really excited about the gradual implementation of a $15 minimum wage for student workers. Sydney and I have identified realistic ways forward to achieve this, which makes it even more exciting because it’s completely possible, and would help so many students pay for tuition and save money for after graduation.

All in all, though, Sydney and I have put hours into our platform which consists of 80+ initiatives that we are equally passionate about that include comprehensive explanations and reasonings. We are confident that the 17th Assembly will be able to accomplish these things.

SG: I personally am most excited to take on some of our Sexual Violence Awareness and Prevention initiatives. This past year when I served as the Speaker of the Assembly where my role was primarily internal-facing, I began to really miss working on initiatives, especially with other student organizations and offices. Sexual violence is an extremely prevalent issue, and I hope to use my role to advocate for transparency, survivor-centered resources, trauma-informed response teams, and meaningful collaboration with other student organizations.

OS: What do you think sets you apart from previous presidents and vice presidents?

NR: One unique thing about Sydney and me that sets us apart from other administrations is our distinct experiences within the 16th Assembly. Last year, I personally had the pleasure of learning under UPUA President Erin Boas as her vice president — from who I’ve learned everything. I was more external facing, and Sydney (as speaker of the assembly), has intricate knowledge of the internal workings of the Assembly. Our experiences and professional dynamic go hand-in-hand and will be an immense asset.

I’m also not shy about talking about my personal experiences that I think differ from former members of UPUA. Many people know about my experiences of poverty and the ways food stamps and Medicaid have truly allowed me to live a full life. I don’t have active parents in my life, so I’ve raised and supported myself with the help of my grandparents and friends. I’m a first-generation college student, gay, and a person of color. I really think I’m probably the last person someone might expect to run for president, but I did it!

It’s been hard, but I honestly wouldn’t change my experiences or background for anything. The adversity has shaped me into who I am today. It’s helped me find my passions, and hone in on my goals for student government. Now, I’m more determined than ever to advocate for students who have had similar experiences to me.  

SG: I believe that what sets us apart from previous administrations is that Najee has had a role this whole past year where he has learned how to communicate with the administration and how to navigate university bureaucracy and more outward-facing responsibilities.

I, on the other hand, have more experience in how we can bring younger members of the UPUA into our conversations to ensure the sustainability of these projects beyond our terms, how to delegate projects to our chairs and committee members so that they are set up for success, and more inwards-facing responsibilities. The combination of these skills will be a real asset this year.

OS: What is your favorite place to hang out, study, or eat at Penn State?

NR: This probably won’t come as a surprise, and I won’t even bother lying to make the answer to this question more exciting, but it’s the UPUA office. I guarantee you, rain or shine, and in between classes, you can find me there. Come say hi! It’s not boring, I promise. I hang out, study, and eat there basically every day, which might sound sad, but it’s really my home now!

SG: I love HUB Room 008! I love to sit at the counter at the window looking out at the HUB Lawn with all the natural light, and it is usually very quiet in there.

OS: What is your favorite part about working with each other? 

NR: Sydney is analytical and logical. She breaks things down and makes them make sense. I never thought I’d be best friends with a STEM major, but here I am. We work extremely well together, and we’re not afraid to tell each other what we think about issues we want to address. She believes in me and supports me. I think most importantly, though, is that we were friends way before this partnership-for-life. We have fun together and work even harder together, and I think that’s my favorite thing about our relationship and dynamic.

SG: We are very honest with each other, and we hold each other accountable to a high standard of leadership. I also know that Najee will always have my back no matter what and he is incredibly loyal.

OS: Najee, how does it feel to make history as the first queer person of color to serve as student body president? Sydney, how do you feel as his running mate?

NR: It is humbling, it really is. It’s also kind of nerve-wracking, but equally exciting. It shows that our University Park community believes in, and is growing towards, a more equitable community, where anything is possible for any student who comes from any background.

There have been recent times when I’ve been stressed and nervous, and I feel like I need to go above and beyond to prove myself because I don’t want to mess things up for others that might come after me. The pressure is on, and I don’t think it’s an issue that many others before me have experienced. While things really are changing for the better, it’s still rare to see people of color in leadership positions in student organizations and university administration. That’s changed with Neeli Bendapudi, though.

I’ve been beginning to ask myself if I will be listened to, or if I will be taken seriously. I have felt imposter syndrome throughout most of my life, constantly questioning if I’m ready or good enough, but I’m hoping that things will change, and I’m hoping that the status quo will change for the better.

I really don’t think a person like me would’ve won ten years ago, which I think makes this even more impactful. I’m hoping that this win shows incoming and current Penn State students from historically underrepresented communities, who might doubt themselves right now, that they are able to accomplish anything here–and can even become the president of our student government. 

SG: A lot of the work that Najee has done in UPUA has been very related to his identity and his growing up experiences, and that can be an incredibly emotionally-taxing journey, so I am so proud of him for continuing to fight for things so that students beyond us have a more equitable Penn State experience.

OS: What do diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to you? 

NR: It means everything to me. It’s been a paramount driving factor in my involvement in the UPUA, and an area that I hope to bring the most change. Words matter when it comes to advancing DEI, but actions matter even more, and that’s what I’ve set myself to do throughout my UPUA career. Every student deserves to feel welcome, feel like they belong at Penn State, and feel supported during their four years here no matter their identity or background. Being a queer person of color has had its challenges, as I’ve been called slurs before, and have faced other instances of bias–so it’s still a very relevant issue that needs to be addressed.

SG: Diversity, equity, and inclusion to me mean amplifying the voices of marginalized communities at the table, educating ourselves about how we can be an advocate or uplift the work others are doing, and embracing vulnerable and uncomfortable conversations because they will push you to be a better leader and friend.

OS: If you could choose a fictional character to serve as president and vice president, who would you choose and why?

NR: So simple to answer. Katniss Everdeen as student body president, mostly because I’m pretty sure she’s in the college-age bracket, so it’s realistic. Plus, she literally single-handily spearheaded a revolution of change — pretty cool, huh? As her vice president, I’d definitely pick Harry Potter. They definitely would make for a good team, advocating against injustice, casting spells, and leading revolutions due to injustice. #VoteEverdeenPotter4UPUA2023

SG: Probably Skylar from “Good Will Hunting” and Rory Gilmore from “Gilmore Girls”. That is my favorite movie and TV show, and I feel as though they are so incredibly passionate, intelligent, and empathetic.

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

NR: I think there’s an obvious answer to this. Pterodactyl, for sure. One: it was featured in the Scooby-Doo live-action movies. And two: it would be so easy to eat and watch what’s everything happening on the ground. Being able to fly would be pretty cool, too.

SG: Brachiosaurus, because it is the more gentle-looking dinosaur in my opinion!

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About the Author

Ava Brendgord

Ava is a senior from Houston, TX majoring in broadcast journalism. She loves coffee and bagels, traveling, and keeping a healthy balance between watching the news and reality television. Follow her at @avabrendgord on Instagram or email her at [email protected].

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