10 Questions With New UPUA President Sydney Gibbard

Sydney Gibbard has had a wild last couple of months leading up to where she is now.

After Najee Rodriguez stepped down from his role as UPUA President, Gibbard took over his responsibilities. Now, as the fall semester has begun, she is preparing for the new role that she didn’t plan to have when the summer began.

Now, Gibbard will lead the 17th assembly, with its first meeting Wednesday evening. We sat down and spoke with her about her goals as president, what challenges have arisen, and her relationship with Penn State President Dr. Neeli Bendapudi.

Onward State: In what ways has your preparation changed from when you ran as a vice presidential candidate to your new role as president?

Sydney Gibbard: It has shifted in some ways and has remained the same in others. The vice presidential role definitely has a lot more flexibility to work on your biggest passion projects and really focus on what you want to do for the year. The president’s role has to be flexible to whatever the needs of the university or the organization are. In that way, my priorities have shifted to be more of a resource for anyone else who would like to work with UPUA.

At the core of it, I still have my own passion projects, especially regarding sexual violence related initiatives on campus. I am really hoping UPUA can continue the work Najee [Rodriguez] put into the organization as far as food and housing security initiatives. That will continue to be a big focus for us this year.

OS: Are there any new initiatives that you would like to focus on that you may not have been able to as VP?

SG: One topic that has definitely come up, and hopefully it won’t be as big as COVID, is monkeypox. [The disease] is a big conversation right now regarding resources the university is providing, how we can reduce the stigma surrounding monkeypox, and how we can make sure testing is accessible.

Another big priority is voting-related initiatives, especially with elections coming up in November. The governor’s race is a big topic on campus, and we want to encourage students to exercise their right to vote. We also want to put out good literature for people that is nonpartisan so people can craft their own opinion on how they want to vote. But, the most important thing is that they vote.

OS: What are you looking forward to the most as president?

SG: I am really looking forward to developing relationships with other organizations. Najee and I built a platform originally that was centered around amplifying the priorities of other organizations. We redesigned the election campaign season so we had a longer time to connect with organizations, get feedback on our platform, and hopefully create new projects that are representative of their values.

I really hope to continue that moving forward, and I think I have a greater ability to do that as president. It’s just about bringing other people’s ideas into UPUA and seeing how we can help the fund or advocate for something. It’ll be really awesome to carry out some of the things that I wanted to do as vice president, but I was unsure if I would be able to do.

OS: What challenges do you expect to have in this new position?

SG: To be honest, I am an engineering major, and there’s a concern about workload. There is just a lot on my plate academically to finish off my senior year, though, I’m thankful to already have a job lined up after I graduate.

It is important that we don’t put only people from a specific college in leadership positions, however. I am hoping that my professors will be understanding in someways, and I know UPUA has reframed conversations about campus leaders’ mental health, so I hope we can all show each other empathy throughout the year.

OS: How has this experience shaped how you want to lead UPUA?

SG: My roles I held in UPUA are key to my values now. I was Speaker of the Assembly last year, and that role gave me an interesting perspective on the importance of creating UPUA as a safe organization and as a powerful place for people to feel empowered.

I want to tie myself to the things that are so important to me and really never forget what it was like to be a freshman in UPUA and be overwhelmed with all the projects going on. I think making it relatable and achievable is a goal I can continue to have.

OS: What is your relationship like with Dr. Neeli Bendapudi, and how do you intend to work with her throughout the year?

SG: Dr. Bendapudi is a very student-centered president, and I think that is really exciting for other student leaders and me. In my role, I have had the opportunity to meet with her a couple of times and discuss my own priorities. Her role is being a “thought partner,” and that means she helps you reimagine what could be possible and pushes you to ask more of the university.

Although she challenges me, she’s also there to be a support system for me and let me know that it’s not just on students to create new policies and make sure the university is progressing in the right direction. She just wants to be there with you to help you through those tough decisions, as well as provide support when needed. I am very excited for her to be here.

OS: How would you describe UPUA’s impact on your life?

SG: I kind of talked about this in my Convocation speech, but everyone tells you that grades are super important, and even though they are, I truly felt UPUA and my extracurricular activities were the things that I brought up in an interview and got me the job. I showed how I was able to persevere through something difficult, how I was able to break down a problem and think about what actionable items we can do to address it, and how to interact with key stakeholders to make sure we come to the best solution possible.

OS: What is your favorite Penn State tradition?

SG: I would say the White Out game. When I originally came to Penn State, I was unsure of how I felt about it. A lot of people come to Penn State and don’t really know how to feel about it, and I didn’t know how to feel about going to a football school.

But, football was like the number one thing that made me fall in love with the university and feel connected to the pride we have here. The White Out game is just a culmination of the passion of everyone in the university.

OS: If you were to look back on this experience five years from now, what legacy do you hope to leave on UPUA and Penn State at large?

SG: I think that my goal is to build an organization and a network of students within UPUA that can take on a project with no fear. They can take on issues and attack them — who do we need to address within the university to fix the issue, how can we be creative in finding funds for things, and where are we finding support for things?

We need to make students a “thought partner” with the university because including students is super important. Really pushing for that is very important for me over the next year.

OS: When we last spoke, we asked you Onward State’s traditional final question: if you were a dinosaur, which one would you be and why? Your answer was the Brachiosaurus. Do you have the same answer or have you changed your mind?

SG: I still really like the Brachiosaurus because it is the least scary-looking dinosaur, and I think it just looks a little more friendly, and I hope that I am as approachable!

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey was a Secondary Education major before he graduated from the wonderful institution known as Penn State. When he was not writing for the blog, he enjoyed rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor," and yes mom, actually doing school work. All of this work prepared him to teach his own class of students, which was always his true passion. He still can be found on Twitter @theowenabbey and can be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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