Candidates debate mental health, transparency

The Undergraduate Student Government held its presidential debate Wednesday in Wallis Annenberg Hall where four presidential tickets discussed initiatives for improving students’ well-being. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

Four presidential tickets discussed efforts to increase the availability of mental health resources, the need for administrative transparency and plans to improve campus sustainability during Wednesday’s Undergraduate Student Government presidential debate. 

The debate, which was hosted in partnership with Annenberg Media, drew more than 100 students to Wallis Annenberg Hall to hear candidates Truman Fritz and Rose Ritch; Christopher McMorran and Trinity Lee; Sara Khoshniyati and Rohit Bolla; and Christine Nguyen and Miles Kay before the voting period opens Tuesday. 

Discussion began with the candidates’ positions on mental health and wellness in light of frustrations with Engemann Student Health Center over the last few years regarding the student-to-counselor ratio and counselor diversity and availability. Candidates acknowledged the student-led push for more mental health resources on campus despite larger changes within USC Student Health such as the implementation of the new mental health floor in Engemann, which is expected to be fully staffed by Fall 2020. 

Nguyen, who currently serves as USG marketing assistant director, called mental health a systemic issue that affects all communities at USC and said Student Health has implemented insufficient strategies to resolve this issue. To ameliorate this, Nguyen and Kay, who has not held a position in USG, said they plan to incorporate mental health programming into all aspects on campus through the implementation of school-specific wellness initiatives.  

“The reality of the matter is that although we push Engemann to do better, it’s simply not working,” Nguyen said. “So our strategy is to make sure we integrate mental health into as many areas of student life as possible.”

Fritz, who currently serves as USG senior director of communications, said there is a need to increase mental health resources by allocating more funding toward mental health services and a need to reduce the surrounding stigma through initiatives such as Seize the Awkward, a campaign that gives students the means to facilitate conversations among peers regarding mental health. 

“[USC] does not put money into student health, that is what has created longer wait lines, restricted hours, off-campus referrals,” Fritz said. “All these things that we face on a daily basis go back to where the money is. If administrators are focused on the student-first mentality, they should focus on putting money where students are.”

Candidate also addressed the need for more accountability and stronger transparency between administration and students. Sen. McMorran said the recent failures of the University are due to the lack of connection between the student body and the Board of Trustees. Several tickets, including his and Lee’s, referenced plans to incorporate student representation on the Board. 

“The key to getting all of them done is having more student representation in the highest levels of University decision-making,” McMorran said. “By having a student there, that will allow us to really reach out and make sure that trustees … are actually aware of how these issues like mental health, sustainability and accountability, can be solved.” 

Fritz and Sen. Ritch agreed it was necessary to place a student on the Board, recommending the creation of advisory councils made up of students that would directly work with administration. 

“We need to have representation in every single aspect of this administration,” Ritch said. “We deserve to have a voice in all of these big changes that are being made. We deserve to know what’s going on, and I think this begins with implementing these advisory councils and [having] students working directly with the administration.” 

Presidential and vice presidential candidates Sara Khoshniyati (left) and Rohit Bolla (right) spoke about the need for educating students and campus organizations on sustainability. (Imran Tallman | Daily Trojan)

Nguyen said she wants campus leaders to have the opportunity to attend Board meetings with President Carol Folt and other senior administrators to enhance student representation on the Board.

“We think that it would be so beneficial to increase transparency, increase student representation and to prevent communication dilution by implementing a way to personally extend an invitation to campus leaders to come to these meetings,” Nguyen said. 

Fritz and Ritch said they will continue their ongoing plan to eliminate nonessential single-use plastics in on-campus restaurants and dining facilities by directly working with campus stores to stop selling plastic products. 

“USG needs to act as a flagship for sustainable education, whether it’s in programming, whether it’s putting money toward funding resources and restarting the Green Engagement Fund or whether it’s creating resources around sustainable practices and programming for recognized student organizations on campus,” Fritz said.

Following the Investment Office’s release of fossil fuel investment numbers last week, Sen. Khoshniyati and Bolla, who currently serves as the USG philanthropy fund assistant director, emphasized the importance of fossil fuel divestment and improving sustainability within dining halls. Currently, 5% of the University’s endowment, or $277 million, is invested in fossil fuels. 

The Sara & Rohit ticket said it plans on implementing an online learning module for sustainability education similar to the AlcoholEdu course all incoming first-year students are required to take before completing their first semester on campus.

“We agree that we should get rid of single-use plastic cups and increase compost bins on campus, but we believe that the future of sustainability is focused on divesting away from fossil fuels,” Khoshniyati said. “These are conversations that we need to have with administrators and this is the future of USC actually being green.” 

Nguyen and Kay extended their platform emphasis of sustainability to education, saying they plan to teach sustainability to students and organizations throughout the USC community. 

“The platform that Miles and I are running on is making sure that each individual, down to their very core, knows what sustainability looks like in their own life,” Nguyen said.

Khoshniyati reiterated the intention of engaging student voters in the electoral process of determining the next leaders of the student body. 

“Where we see problems, we’ve identified feasible solutions we can implement next year,” Khoshniyati said. “The legacy of this institution has been at stake and students really have the most important role in shaping that. The University of Southern California has never been in a more exciting position for change.”