When Michael Wade Smith was elected student body president at Kansas University this spring, he brought with him an ambitious platform:
- Make KU ecologically 100 percent sustainable.
- Create a student services center.
- Publish teacher evaluations online.
- Make textbooks more affordable.
- Establish a university-wide community service day.
- Increase multiculturalism on campus.
And, oh yeah, have fun.
“We want to rebrand Student Senate as something that’s fun,” Smith said.
By “we,” he means KUnited.
“KUnited was formed by myself and Meg Ritter,” Smith said. “We wanted to run things differently.
“In the past, a coalition was just a political entity. We wanted something new, that’s political, social and service oriented. We wanted to create a family that wanted to work together.”
The two met when they were working in the senate. They got to talking about the kinds of changes they’d like to see happen at KU and they realized they could work together to make those changes happen.
“Michael and I work very well together,” Ritter said. “We’re both very strong-minded and we have no problem telling each other when we disagree.”
They met with friends and sought people from all walks of KU life to join their team, including students who might not see issues exactly as they do.
“It was very important to both of us that our coalition be representative of the entire campus,” Ritter said.
“We purposely sought out people who disagree with us,” Smith said.
They had political meetings regularly, but they also had karaoke nights, cookouts, parties and service get-togethers. During one community service project, they cleaned up South Park; on another, they helped out at Jubilee Café.
They put up a slate of 50 candidates during the April election and all but two of them won.
“It was the biggest win in Student Senate history,” Smith said. “It was an awesome year.”
Although Smith and Ritter said they sought out students who had views different from their own, don’t expect them to start acting like Congress. Smith said on most issues students tend to be in agreement.
“Campus issues are not as divisive as national issues,” he said. “Our core mission is very much the same.”
That would be the platform. Or platforms. KUnited has more than 20, all of which are boldly declared on its website at KUnited.org. Smith said he would be working on each platform at the same time with the same level of urgency.
“We have chosen not to create a priority list,” he said. “So nothing is more important than anything else.”
That said, some platform items are farther along than others. Smith and Ritter began working on them this summer.
The duo made headway on establishing a student services center, a place where students can take care of their administrative needs in a one-stop shop.
They’re also making progress on a sustainability plan, although Smith conceded that KU’s budget is too tight to make the kind of big moves they’d like to make.
They’re even moving closer to establishing a program at the Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center where students can take weekly self-defense courses.
Smith and Ritter are both paid for their work, but not much. Smith receives $7.50 an hour for 20 hours of work a week.
“I’m not getting rich doing this,” he said.
But money isn’t the real reward.
For one, the experience is invaluable, Smith said, especially for someone with an eye on a career in public service.
Smith will graduate this year. He intends to go into politics at some point, but he’s not in a hurry to do so. He’ll likely go to graduate school first. His first choice: a doctorate from the political communication program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Best of all, in Smith’s opinion, is the opportunity to make a difference.
“Students at this university have had an amazing impact,” Smith said of Student Senate. “More than most other universities.”
To get involved with Student Senate, visit its website at studentsenate.ku.edu, where you’ll find a calendar of meetings and events, contact information and instructions about how to introduce legislation.
The senate meets at 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday during the school year in the Kansas Union. The Student Senate office is located in the Kansas Union, Room 410, and its phone number is 864-3710.