Najee Rodriguez stands as a rising senior from Orlando, Florida working towards a double major in History and International Politics with a concentration in National Security. The student body also just recently elected him at the end of March as Penn State’s new student body president. As the first president to serve the university after COVID-19 restrictions come to a full close, Rodriguez intends to carry out his big plans for the year ahead. From flourishing his “why” of student poverty through personal experience, as well as working directly with Penn State’s new president, Dr. Neeli Bendapudi, Rodriguez looks forward to representing the university this upcoming year.
Continue reading to learn more about Rodriquez and his work.
Q: What inspired you to run for office?
NR: I don’t think I am the ordinary person to run for Student Body President and I think that’s what motivated me to do it the most. I am a queer person of color and I have supported myself throughout the entirety of college. The UPUA has only had one person of color serve as the Student Body President in its 17-year history and I wanted to change the status quo. I have also experienced different facets of poverty, which has been a personal and primary reason why I am trying so hard to eliminate it. I want to be able to tangibly change things for the students who have felt left behind and ignored. I bring a personal experience to that which I think differs from past student government executives. For me, it just makes the stakes higher. I’ve been in student government for the past three years and I am comfortable and confident in navigating the bureaucracy of Penn State to get things done. I am also passionate about advancing racial equity and eliminating systemic barriers to higher education that have plagued so many members of my own community and other communities. I do believe in resilience and I do believe in change. I also believe that Penn State can be better and change is what I most want to see come out of my term.
Q: What are some of your main goals that you hope to achieve as President?
NR: My partner-in-life (my Vice President), Sydney Gibbard and I created a platform of ten main pillars that consisted of numerous initiatives underneath. Our three main pillars were titled Eliminating Student Poverty, Addressing Sexual Violence and Advancing Justice and Equity (DEI). We are hoping to make tangible strides in the realms of environmental sustainability, the enhancement of the academic experience and increased advocacy for mental health and wellness.
Q: What are you most excited for during your presidency?
NR: I’m most excited to work with Penn State’s new President, Dr. Neeli Bendapudi. This rarely happens for any student body president, with the last experience like this being eight years ago with the arrival of former Penn State President Eric Barron. Dr. Bendapudi is a remarkable and talented professional of higher education and she brings a fresh perspective to Penn State. I see change coming with Dr. Bendapudi and I couldn’t be more excited.
Q: What does a day in the life as President look like for you?
NR: A day in my life as President consists of something new each and every day, which I love. It will typically consist of meetings with University administrators, helping facilitate the logistics of the Executive Branch and the progress of work being done, communicating with the other student leaders within the student government, answering and sending emails and most importantly, advocating for our agenda.
Q: What skills do you hope to gain as President?
NR: I hope that I will be able to be more thoughtful and understanding, especially with more nuanced issues in which solutions aren’t necessarily clear-cut. I am a very passionate individual and sometimes that passion and drive will blind me to listening to other viewpoints. I am confident that my communication skills will grow in this role, as well as my professional development.
Q: What do you see being a challenge as President?
NR: I think overcoming my imposter syndrome in my role will be the biggest challenge. I’ve never seen someone like me in my role before and I regularly question whether I’m good or competent enough. When I’m in meetings, I’m usually the only person of color. Each and every time I often wonder if I was listened to or taken seriously. It takes a toll on you over the years as you’re pushed to navigate predominantly white spaces and the self-doubt that I have right now will hopefully be alleviated throughout the year.
Q: How do you feel being the first President after almost everything has gone back to normal after COVID-19?
NR: I’m very grateful for the experience. I honestly don’t know how my predecessors did it. It was a stressful and dangerous time for so many and I cannot imagine the extra pressure that was put on them. I view it right now as being an opportunity. We learned how to be more effective at outreach and becoming a better community partner as a student government during COVID-19 and we ultimately adapted our strategy due to our resilience. I’m extremely optimistic about moving forward with the lessons we learned during that time and applying it to maximize student government’s efficiency and outreach to students even further.
Q: What is one thing you hope to change/improve about Penn State by the time your presidency ends?
NR: I hope to change the culture of Penn State to some degree. I want everyone to feel cared for by the administration and by their student government and I am optimistic that it will happen. By advocating for the most vulnerable student populations and stressing the importance of the issues that are inflicted, inequitably, on certain communities, I can envision a new direction in the culture of the university. A new direction that includes every student.
Q: If you could be remembered for one accomplishment during your time as President at Penn State, what would that be?
NR: If I could be remembered for one accomplishment during my term as Student Body President at Penn State, it would be bringing the issue of student poverty to the forefront of the conversation and reasonably pushing for the expansion of resources, dedication and a commitment to systemically addressing it. This past year, I served as one of three coordinators alongside 14 other students for Penn State’s Student Advisory Board on Student Poverty. We drafted 46 pages of recommendations, through countless hours and over a period of 6 months, from a critical and student-oriented perspective, on the services and infrastructure that we wanted to see tackle the issue of student poverty. That recommendation ultimately called for a consolidation and centralization of services through a proposed unit named the Student Office of Affordability Resources and Support (SOARS). I want nothing more than to achieve the primary objectives of those recommendations and to complete the mission that we started a year ago. I hope that there is a future at Penn State where no student faces the varying facets of poverty and I truly believe in that future.
Q: Do you have aspirations to run for any political positions after graduation?
NR: Absolutely not. In fact, I’ve grown more wary of politics during my time in student government. Many people need to realize that student government is essentially being an unpaid intern in the world of higher education. The issues you face aren’t political in the traditional sense, but they specifically relate to issues within your university. Aspiring politicians wanting to join student government: beware!
Tips on how to run for Office
Know your “why”: You shouldn’t be seeking out this position because it would look good on your resume. It’s not worth the time if it’s for that reason. You need to be selfless and a true servant to your constituents, otherwise, why would you do it? Having a “why” is what gets you to the end of the election and it’s what keeps you going long after. My “why” was always student poverty. It propels your true passion into action.
Be selfless and empathetic: Many of the issues that you may set out to fix can be emotionally and mentally overwhelming. Be sure that your intentions are selfless, because students are counting on you to advocate for them in rooms that they cannot be in. It’s your responsibility and you ultimately have to be up for the challenge. Even if an issue may not matter as much to you, it matters to another student. You have to learn to be truly empathetic to connect with students and to do the job to the best of your ability.
How to Connect
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