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The student-elected trustee candidates discussed the affordability of the University, mental health resources and diversity and inclusion.

April 22, 2021

Student-Elected Trustee Candidates Discuss Mental Health and Affordability in Debate

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Cornell’s six student trustee candidates debated affordability, diversity and inclusion and mental health resources on April 21.

When asked what qualified them for the role of student trustee, candidates referenced prior leadership roles as well as their own lived experiences. 

Several candidates are already part of Cornell’s shared governance structure. Andrea Miramontes Serrano ’24 is currently a freshman representative on the Student Assembly. Selam Woldai ’23 currently serves as the vice president of diversity and inclusion on the Student Assembly and the minority student at-large liaison, and Andrew Talone ’24 is part of the Arts and Sciences Dean’s Student Advisory Council. 

Others referenced their work outside of Cornell’s student government — Itai Mupanduki ’23 worked for his high school’s board of trustees, an experience he said prepares him to be part of Cornell’s board. 

Alexa Chong ’23 spoke on her experience as service chair for her professional sustainability fraternity Epsilon Eta, service director for her social fraternity and assistant director of philanthropy for Hotel Ezra Cornell 95. Brisa Lee ’23 spoke about her past work for indigenous people, including founding a non-profit, Native American Advocacy Foundation.

Mental health at Cornell was among the key topics discussed. Chong believes Cornell should expand their team of therapists. Serrano focused on academic stress, and suggested strategies including more pass fail classes. Talone, Mupanduki and Woldai want to expand Cornell’s mental health resources, while Lee said she would try to facilitate better academic accommodations for mental health concerns.

“In as stressful an environment as Cornell is, the need for great mental health services is that much more salient,” Mupanduki said.

Next, the candidates raised the financial challenges of attending Cornell and proposed potential solutions. Mupanduki and Serrano emphasized the burden of non-tuition expenses, such as gym memberships. Lee suggested providing more access to affordable meal plans, University food pantries and public transportation. 

Talone drew a connection between mental health challenges on campus and the rising cost of attendance.

“We’ve seen constant and steady increases in tuition going back since, quite literally, at least half a century,” Talone said. “I think that really provides a lot of stress to students that they aren’t necessarily prepared to handle.”

Lee raised the issue of sexual assault, an additional mental health stressor which she wishes to address as trustee. 

The candidates also debated campus sustainability. Serrano pushed for a focus on zero-waste strategies including redesigning campus waste and recycling systems and fulfilling Cornell’s carbon neutrality promises. Chong discussed her role in last year’s divestment campaign, and Woldai called for increased transparency from the administration about how Cornell plans to reach carbon-neutrality by 2035.

A fourth topic of discussion was diversity and inclusion. All candidates expressed the need to support Cornell’s communities of color through resources customized to suit their needs.

“As a minority, and talking to other minority students at Cornell, we didn’t feel like Cornell was actually helping us. It was helping other people educate themselves,” Lee said.

All of the candidates promised to consider student needs if elected, making themselves available for discussion and to building a bridge between the students and adminsitration. Serrano suggested creating weekly newsletters and an online forum to submit complaints and suggestions. 

Talone said he would regularly talk to all key Cornell stakeholders, while Lee promised to lend a listening ear for students in need of support. Mupanduki and Woldai suggested the creation of monthly office hours for the student trustee members. Woldai proposed town halls to gather student feedback, and Chong promised to continue her listening events, which she hosted throughout her campaign.

While they acknowledged that the title of student trustee would include maintaining Cornell’s financial longevity, the candidates emphasized ethics and student wellbeing.

“While it is important that the Board of Trustees take into account the finances of the University, they have to realize that this institution is doing so much more than just managing the dollar signs for what Cornell does,” Talone said. “It is affecting the lives of tens of thousands of students and thousands of employees and faculty.”