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Student Assembly President Valeria Valencia ’23 shared with The Sun her experiences as the first Latina Student Assembly President.

May 8, 2023

“Lead With Empathy”: Valeria Valencia ’23 Reflects on Term as First Latina S.A. President

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When Valeria Valencia ’23 moved to the United States from Mexico at 8 years old, she did not speak any English and was too shy to raise her hand in class. Now, as a senior at Cornell, Valencia is graduating as an industrial and labor relations major and finishing her term as Student Assembly president.

The S.A. was established in 1981, creating the current system of student governance at Cornell. Since the organization’s founding, Valencia is the first Latina to be elected president.

Valencia described her gratitude for her term’s historic precedent but also noted that the status quo of S.A. presidents reflects Cornell’s room for improvement in including and uplifting diverse voices.

“I really enjoyed serving as an S.A. president and even more so being the first Latina,” Valencia said. “[But] it wasn’t until [the] 2022 to 2023 [school year] that this happened. So I think it was a little overdue.”

Valencia’s introduction to politics began as a freshman in high school when she joined her school’s student government. However, as a first-year student at Cornell, Valencia initially decided to take a step back from student government roles to explore the different opportunities offered at the University.

Valencia ultimately joined the S.A. her sophomore year after witnessing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the student body. She ran for the position of minority students representative for the 2020 to 2021 academic year to make Cornell a safer place for low-income, first-generation and minority students, who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. 

In Valencia’s first S.A. term, the assembly introduced a resolution that called for the disarmament of the Cornell University Police Department. After a contentious three-hour meeting, the resolution ultimately failed by one vote, and opponents of the resolution saw harassment and recall petitions by current S.A. members and constituents. The S.A. ultimately passed a different resolution that reversed the organization’s stance on disarming CUPD, but it was rejected by President Martha Pollack.

For Valencia, serving on the S.A. throughout this time informed her future leadership tactics, as she reflected on how she would have acted as president throughout this polarized S.A. period.

“My main goal [as president] was to not have a super divisive S.A., because going back to how the S.A. worked in that 2020 to 2021 academic year, that assembly was so polarized and divided that it couldn’t really do much,” Valencia said. “As president, you serve as a chair for the meeting… so I wanted to treat that as unbiased as I possibly could so… that [all sides] could feel that their voices were welcomed and that it was a safe space for them to speak their mind.”

Valencia said she believes she fostered a respectful and cooperative S.A. as president. She pointed to how the S.A. unanimously voted for Resolution 31 — which urged the University to require professors to provide content warnings for sensitive material — and noted that members prioritized protecting and supporting each other when confronted with the resolution’s nationwide attention.

“We’re on the same page of protecting one another and making sure that even if we disagree that we all feel safe when speaking to each other,” Valencia said. “We’re always going to have differences, but [our unity] looked a lot better than it had a couple of years back.”

Throughout Valencia’s first term in the S.A., she also worked on resolutions to establish Cornell as a sanctuary campus and for the University to cut ties with all companies that do business with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. By Spring 2021, Valencia ran for the position of first generation student representative to continue to serve underrepresented students at Cornell.

“Cornell is challenging as it is for everyone,” Valencia said. “But when you add these identities [such as being first-generation or an immigrant,] it’s an added layer of hard [and] of stress.”

Valencia explained that once she was elected first generation student representative, she decided to run for the vice president of finance position — which is internally appointed by fellow S.A. members on alternating years to oversee the S.A.’s approximately $9 million biannual byline funding cycle. Valencia initially lost this election but was appointed later in the academic year when the former vice president of finance stepped down.

To organize the allocation of the student activity fee, Valencia met with approximately 30 byline clubs that spanned across various corners of campus, such as the Cornell University Emergency Medical Service to the Cornell Interfaith Council. Ultimately, connecting with a myriad of campus communities motivated Valencia to run for S.A. president.

After a taxing campaigning cycle, Valencia ultimately won the election with 862 votes while opponent Duncan Cady ’23 accumulated 602 votes. Valencia described how she was moved to tears by her joy of taking on the position. Then, she nearly immediately got to work, setting up the S.A.’s Slack channel and drafting a welcome email for the other S.A. elected representatives.

Above all, Valencia described the role of president as dynamic, as she was tasked with responding to the concerns of a constantly changing campus. Throughout her term, Valencia worked on resolutions focused on supporting the goals of the Basic Needs Coalition, responding to instances of assault and drink spiking in Greek Life and providing special projects funding to groups including TEDxCornell and the Pan-African Student Association.

In addition to her more public role of leading S.A. meetings, Valencia noted that she regularly talked to administrators — including Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, and Marla Love, Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley dean of students. In March, Valencia also presented information about S.A. resolutions to the Board of Trustees.

To Valencia, her favorite part of serving as S.A. president has been the opportunity to connect with and uplift different communities on campus.

However, Valencia noted that there is still a disconnect between the student body and the S.A., propelled by low voter turnout at S.A. elections, misunderstanding among students about the S.A.’s operations and a lack of student attendance at S.A. meetings.

“We are supposed to represent the whole study body,” Valencia said. “But if only 11 percent of students are voting, we can’t really do that.”

Still, Valencia is proud of how the S.A. has approved several large-impact resolutions throughout her term as president, including the resolution requesting funding for an M.D. gynecologist at Cornell Health, a request to institute vending machines on campus with nonprescription health care supplies including contraception and the content warnings resolution.

“All of these resolutions — even if they were rejected [referring to the campus gynecologist and content warnings resolutions] — created a lot of conversations both within the student body, as well as with central administration,” Valencia said. “And I know this has gotten the ball rolling on lots of other things.”

To Valencia, serving as president of the S.A. is overwhelming for anyone, but the role’s pressures were amplified due to the historic nature of her term.

“Serving as a student leader on campus [is] scary. Doing it as president is even more [scary, and] being the first Latina to do it is even scarier,” Valencia said. “A lot of times I felt like ‘Oh, if I mess up, then I make all Latinos look bad.’”

Valencia emphasized that she combats her fears by prioritizing hard work, transparency, honesty and communication in her approach to the position. She noted that the term also broadened her ability to communicate with people of opposing views in a productive and empathetic manner.

Next year, Valencia will bring the perspective she fostered as S.A. president and from leadership roles in other student organizations — including as the president of ALANA Intercultural Board and as a resident advisor for Southwest Campus — to her position as a paralegal for a law firm in Los Angeles. After a year of working, Valencia plans to attend law school to pursue public interest law. Her interest in working in criminal defense, particularly as a public defender, stems from her desire to serve her community and help those in need.

When asked what advice she would give to the next S.A. president, Valencia described the importance of being an active listener and respectful of ideological differences.

“We all have different life experiences and come from different backgrounds,” Valencia said. “I think making that effort to listen with an empathetic ear and then leading with empathy… [is] the best way that we can learn and grow.”