10 Questions With Newly Elected UPUA President Zion Sykes

In the first contested election since 2020, Zion Sykes was elected president of the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) on March 27. Sykes brings several years of experience and a passion for advocacy to his position. As he gets ready to dive headfirst into the presidency, Onward State sat down with Sykes to learn more about his time at Penn State and UPUA.

Onward State: Why did you choose Penn State and what are some of your favorite things (big or small) about the university?

Zion Sykes: I chose Penn State, really, because it was the most reasonable option for me when it came to finances. It was a tough decision for me overall. I applied to a ton of different places, but I just remember seeing the prices and understanding, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I could do that,’ with a lot of different places. Then I looked into Penn State a bit more and realized they were the most reasonable option when it came to prices, and then they gave me a scholarship, which was really helpful. I ended up choosing Penn State, and it was the best decision I’ve made.

In terms of some of my favorite things, I’d say that my favorite thing is that there’s so much opportunity — there’s never a dull moment, there’s never a thing I’m not feeling that I can do here. It’s just a lot of looking for the answers that you need. There’s so many resources that you can find and utilize, and I think that’s one of my favorite things. Another great thing is that despite how grand and limitless it seems, you can still make it feel homey in some ways whether that be joining a club or having your own little group of friends. It doesn’t feel impossible to feel at home here.

OS: How did you learn about UPUA and why did you decide to get involved with the organization?

ZS: I was part of a UPUA collaboration with Student Affairs in my first year, the Student Advisory Board on Student Poverty. That was a really cool organization to me because it allowed me to see what advocacy can look like in a college setting. Through that, I got to meet some other people who I would get to talk about UPUA — what is it, what do they do, how does it really function?

Funnily enough, I had two friends who were already in it. One was my RA actually. They both told me on the same day that I should check it out and maybe apply. I was like, ‘Hey, OK, why not?’ It just felt like I would be wasting an opportunity if two different people told me and I didn’t do it. So that’s why I joined, but I learned about it through people who happened to be in it and near it and then being a part of a group that was connected to it.

OS: What kind of initiatives have you worked on within UPUA and which are you the most proud of?

ZS: There have been a good few different kinds of issues that I worked on. What pops in my head immediately though, I’ve been on two committees in my time in UPUA: governmental and community relations and justice and equity. In my first year, I was on both. With that, I think we do a lot of interesting stuff with [justice and equity], really just like, how can we do more outreach, getting involved with different things like the bussing initiative, trying to get more outreach to different people about how to make their lives a little easier as they’re leaving for school. And this is targeted towards international students. It basically gave subsidized bus tickets that would allow people to get to international airports kind of close to Penn State. I thought that was a really cool thing, making that one bit of the trip a little bit easier for anyone who needed it or wanted it.

Then in the governmental and community relations committee (it was governmental affairs at the time), I’ve worked on stuff like the PSU Votes debate and Energize with Ezra, which when I was the borough liaison, the student representative to the borough council, I restarted the office hours with the mayor, which was a cool thing to me.

I think in the last year, so the 18th Assembly, when I was chair of the [governmental and community relations] committee, I decided to do a collaboration event with Lion Caucus. I brought in myself and my committee and Lion Caucus brought in two state representatives who were friends but of different political parties. So we had a conversation with them about partisanship, their friendship, how they move by it, how they’re making sure that things get done for Pennsylvanians and everyone who lives in the state. And I just thought it was a really cool event. Afterward, I think what made me most proud of it was a couple of people told me their thoughts and feelings on it. Someone was not in the most optimistic of mindsets when it comes to politics in the United States, and she said that it was a really calming and hopeful thing, [and] that it was good for her to see and gave her hope that things can actually be done and that we’re maybe on the right track as a nation. So I’d say that’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of.

OS: On the flip side, what initiatives and projects do you hope to complete within the next year?

ZS: Within the next year, I think that further collaboration with other student governments, that I kept mentioning during the campaign, that’s something I’m really looking forward to — getting to know the other student government presidents, especially because I think there’s so much opportunity to collaborate with things like voter turnout on the campuses. They’re probably going to be one of the greatest helps that we have.

That kind of ties into my next one, [which is] working on ensuring that we increase turnout. I think that not only talking to [other student governments] more, understanding what kinds of events we can do, how to more properly do voter registration as well as working with Penn State administration because we have PSU Votes, how we can do better as a united front to ensure that we’re increasing numbers as much as we can.

Then the third one is the 19-credit surcharge. I think this one is especially important that they continue to work on it because Provost [Justin] Schwartz is leaving the university and [Penn State will have] a new provost who will be the person overseeing this and ensuring that we don’t lose any progress and continue to take steps forward in the right direction to ensure that students aren’t just pushing things back or dropping different passions of theirs because of this. The pricing of courses is of the highest importance to me from an affordability aspect from a logical aspect.

OS: Why did you make the decision to run for UPUA president, and why did you choose your running mate Rasha Elwakil?

ZS: I chose to run for UPUA president because I felt that it was a good continuation of what I want to do advocacy-wise. I feel like the role in itself is a great opportunity to have a lot of different [and] more avenues of advocacy. You get a wider realm of things that you can deal with. For example, you have a hand in a little bit of everything from being able to sit in on the Faculty Senate, which I haven’t done in the past, but I’m excited to do, and assisting with the 19 credit surcharge to working with the Board of Trustees, and being that student voice there, and giving opinions as to what the correct course of action might be. I think that having that broader base of reach is important, and it’ll allow me to do more than I would have in another position.

I chose Rasha for a good few reasons, but the biggest reason is the fact that she’s so passionate and dedicated to what she does, and she’s pretty smart. That helps a lot. I’d say more importantly, though, we’re different enough that she fills in a lot of the areas where I might not be the strongest at one thing but she can pick it up. As a team, we’re fluid where one of us can pick up where the other might need some help, and I think that’s the biggest thing, that it can’t just be one person doing everything. It’s a team and she helps make that team successful.

OS: While the past several assemblies’ presidents and vice presidents have been very diverse, it’s been almost 15 years since Penn State has had a Black student body president. What does it mean to you to be able to represent that community which is such a big part of Penn State?

ZS: That’s a big question. I didn’t know that it’s been 15 years. That’s interesting. I think that Penn State is at its best when we have diverse viewpoints in these various positions. I hope to bring that to the table — my own unique kind of Penn State experience that certainly isn’t the same as the past few UPUA presidents that have come before me and with that, bringing new ideas, goals, [and] seeing different problems than previous people have. I think that’s one of the most important things for me.

But I think it’s important to recognize I don’t represent an entire community of all the Black people at Penn State. We’re so diverse in where we’re from, our nationality, who we are. It’s such a nuanced thing that I can’t say that I represent every Black person on campus or understand their experience entirely, or really any undergraduate student for that matter, but I’m going to do the best I can to represent you. So overall I’d say that I feel awesome to have the honor of representing this community and overall the broader Penn State community.

OS: What advice do you have for incoming Penn State students?

ZS: I’d say find your own rhythm first and then just start doing stuff. For me, I had to take a minute to get adjusted to all that was here. It was a really different place for me. I come from Philly and really [didn’t] know how a campus like this would work. I mean, honestly, who would? It’s just such a unique place. So don’t fault yourself for getting adjusted or anything. Don’t feel like you’re wasting time. You’re on your own schedule and you’re figuring it out. So take that time that you need and then from there go and find something that you’re interested in and passionate about and just go. Go do it and have fun with it because I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s a quick four years that you’re here. You want to make the most of it, so don’t waste any opportunities that come your way, and before anything else, make sure that you’re doing good and putting your health first.

OS: Can you share some of your favorite memories from your time at Penn State?

ZS: This is a really fun one for me to answer because I was thinking about it yesterday because someone asked me the same question. But one that I didn’t [tell them] technically didn’t happen on campus or anything, but it was through a study abroad I completed last summer in Pueblo, Mexico. We went to this mountain-y kind of village called Cuetzalan and from there we took this van out to a mountain and we zip-lined over waterfalls, and it was just the coolest thing I think I’ve ever had the chance to do. I just know I won’t ever forget doing that. It was such a different and amazing experience. I’d never done anything like that up until that point. It was really freeing and relaxing, just being able to glide over all the stuff under you, seeing all the jungle and the beautiful colors and the sun in the background, and it was just awesome.

Another memory and one of my favorite memories was my first year, the first concert I did with the university choir. I think that it was one of the first times I really felt truly like Penn State was my place to be. It was difficult for me, even though I appreciate the good environment that I had my first year, but I think that finding [my] people, for me, was kind of difficult. Singing with that choir in our first performance, it felt like it clicked and I was supposed to be there. From there, I fell further into Penn State and I’ve loved it ever since. Every day gives me new favorite moments, but those are two really big ones for me.

OS: What is your favorite Berkey Creamery flavor?

ZS: Death By Chocolate.

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

ZS: I’d be a brachiosaurus. I think that those are definitely the coolest ones out there. They’re one of the tallest dinosaurs. I think that’d be pretty fun. That’s just what I think of when I think of a dinosaur. Now, I’m no dinosaur expert, but I think that they’re nice and cool. They’re like the giraffes of the past and I think that’d be really fun.

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee is a 2024 graduate of Penn State with a degree in immunology and infectious disease. She relocated to Williamsport but will not be taking any questions about what’s next in her career. Haylee continues to be fueled by dangerous amounts of caffeine and dreams of smashing the patriarchy. Any questions or discussion about Taylor Swift’s best songs can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter if you must.

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