USG President, VP focus on transparency, campus wellness

Undergraduate Student Government President Trenton Stone (right) and Mahin Tahsin hope to increase campus involvement in University decisions this year. They formalized Trojan Council, a group of faculty, student and staff leaders. (Seanna Latiff | Daily Trojan)

Trenton Stone and Mahin Tahsin take on this year of change as the Undergraduate Student Government president and vice president, respectively. Though the student leaders took office in April, they have set an agenda of ambitious goals for the year, which includes improving student wellness, stressing University-wide sustainability and increasing dialogue with University administration.

They have led the University since the end of the last academic year, after campaigning as a write-in ticket on promises of student representation, increased administrative accountability, improved student resources, a reconfigured health and safety system and an open campus climate.  

When Stone and Tahsin first joined USG in 2017, neither of them expected to run for an elected position — let alone for president and vice president. Stone proposed the idea of joining the election as write-in candidates last January after only one ballot, former USG Senators Michaela Murphy and Meagan Lane, entered the race by the initial deadline. He partnered with Tahsin, and the two hoped to provide another option for students come the election.

“We really wanted to be the best that we could for the student body and focus on the student experience and perspective, more so than we’ve seen in the past,” Stone said.  

Stone, a junior studying international relations and philosophy, and Tahsin, a senior studying business administration and economics, have previous experience working together within USG’s funding branch. Tahsin served as the director of the professional and academic fund, where Stone applied to be a delegate in September 2017. Stone was also a senate aide in the legislative branch at the time. 

“It was so cool to see the amount of resources and the amount of people that were engaged with student government,” Stone said. “We have almost 500 people that will touch our organization in some way this year, and to see all of them so passionate about a similar mission was so impactful to me.”

One year after her starting with USG, Tahsin was brought on to serve as the director of the discretionary fund, and Stone took on her previous position heading the professional and academic fund to provide funding for events programmed by student-run, undergraduate organizations.

“Both of our backgrounds within USG were within the funding branch, which allows you to see a lot of different interests of students through one specific position,” Tahsin said. “And I think that really helped us understand how to work with students, administrators, or any different parties and make sure that we are pushing forward the students’ interest first.” 

Stone highlighted the presidential search committee as an example of the lack of student representation in administrative decisions. Stone and former Graduate Student Government President Joycelyn Yip were later included in the provost search committee that recently announced its decision to appoint University at Buffalo Provost Charles Zukoski.  

“Everyone seems adequately represented on the provost search committee,” Stone said. He said that including students in the decision is effective and feasible. 

One of Stone and Tahsin’s first actions of the semester was to formalize Trojan Council, a group composed of leaders in USG, GSG, Academic Senate and Staff Assembly. The group plans to hold an open forum with University President Carol Folt and other administrators this semester.

According to Stone, this council would be able to play a larger role at USC by prioritizing the voices of faculty, students and staff when making decisions.

“You can’t have all 20,000 undergraduates at the table, but you have a vice president and president that were popularly elected by them,” Stone said in a previous Daily Trojan article. “And that applies when it comes to staff and faculty, they’re all elected and can hopefully adequately represent their constituents.”

Stone said there have been a number of scandals in the past within USG and USC that have distracted from the mission of the undergraduate experience and thrown USC into national scrutiny. 

But Tahsin said issues like the college admissions scandal — which was revealed in an FBI investigation in March right before the start of her and Stone’s term — drive her and other students to create change at USC.

In light of these incidents, she said USC has been working to “break out of the silos that exist to push forward a more united value system.” Stone said there has been an upward swing in administrative accountability and a drastic increase in the inclusion of students — both from USG and from other groups — on committees, task forces and in the general conversation. 

Stone and Tahsin have also worked throughout the summer to plan their agenda for the new school year.

Stone and Tahsin worked with the Office of Student Affairs to reduce the amount of fees student organizations pay for facilities when they host events. The partnership helped them set aside $15,000 in waiver fees for organizations to draw from throughout the school year. 

USG also launched diversity and sustainability training Aug. 30 that requires recognized student organizations to send five representatives to participate in these trainings and take exams to show what they learned. USG also hopes to make a system where branches of USG can collaborate to form task forces in order to address various campus issues. 

“It might be something like an incident of sexual assault or a scandal, but it could also be a long term advocacy project like expanding Lyft hours,” Stone said. He said that they are working on pairing these student task forces with administrative ones, so they can work hand in hand on tackling these campus issues. 

Stone and Tahsin are also focused on improving wellness initiatives across campus. One of these efforts include working with the Campus Wellbeing and Education Office to implement Ask Ari, a virtual wellness assistant platform that answers questions for students, faculty and staff.

Other efforts to improve student life include increasing direct funding to registered student organizations, expanding free Lyft hours depending on what time the sun sets and improving the Trojan food pantry, which will move from Parkside Apartments to a space next Cafe 84.

“It’s going to have a big industrial kitchen,” Stone said. “It will also have a Director of Student Wellbeing who will be able to help students register for things like CalFresh and connect to different resources in the community.”

Truman Fritz, USG senior director of communications, said he aims to improve accountability and transparency in USG to encourage more students to express what improvements they would like to see.

“We really want to emphasize that USG [is] here for you, we are your student government, we represent you, all 20,000 students,” Fritz said. 

Fritz and the rest of USG believe in the importance of fostering an environment in which students have a source to go to with their problems, where every student’s voice is heard. 

After partnering with Auxiliary Services last year to hold a composting pilot program in select residence halls, Sustainability Director Isabella Caltabiano said USG will implement multi stream waste bins in freshman residential colleges. She hopes to eventually install the multi-stream recycling, waste and compost bins in all residential colleges. 

“On top of that, I’m looking to collaborate with President Folt and find ways that we can make USC more sustainable on a greater scale. This will be the first time we have the administration really backing us and propelling us forward,” she said, referring to Folt’s background as an environmental scientist.

With new administrators including Folt, Zukoski and Vice President for Student Affairs Winston Crisp, Stone and Tahsin said they hope to see USC transform its value system to help students, faculty and staff feel more included and informed, and that the culture of the University begins to shift.

“Everytime we come back, we have big events, we go to the football game, we feel proud to be Trojans — but there have definitely been issues over the last couple of years that have eaten away at the pride for a lot of people,” Stone said. 

Ultimately, Stone believes that there are a lot of the right people in the right positions forming good relationships that together can help bring that pride back for everyone.