The signs around campus were straightforward: Vote for Ashley. And the slogan was effective as Ashley Sukhu and Colton Ashley were elected as president and vice president, respectively, to the UW-Eau Claire Student Senate.
And it's safe to say "Team Ashley" plans to bring about change with the help of their fellow students.
Becoming president of Student Senate wasn’t always the path Ashley Sukhu envisioned for herself.
Ashley, an organizational communications major with a music minor and topical minor from Victoria, Minn., tested the waters of student organizations her freshman year by getting involved with Blugold Beginnings and playing mellophone in the Blugold Marching Band. Since then, she’s interned with 4-H, become a McNair Scholar, gone on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage five times (four times as a student coordinator) and served as Student Senate’s outreach and inclusivity coordinator.
Despite everything she’s accomplished, Ashley didn’t enter college with a plan. In fact, only a few years ago, college wasn’t even part of her plan.
“I didn’t want to go to college. But my mom said, ‘You’re going to go.’ So I went,” Ashley said.
But even after her first year at UW-Eau Claire, she still wasn’t convinced college was for her. Now, she said it’s one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
“I originally thought that college wasn’t something I wanted, and even after being on campus for a while, I still wasn’t sure it was for me. I had a hard time making friends right away, so I can really relate to a lot of the student experiences, which is good,” Ashley said. “It took me a long time to even make friends, until maybe this year… But I think that’s a real experience for a lot of people, it really is. It took me a while to find things that I wanted to do and be a part of.”
Ashley said one of her favorite opportunities on Student Senate so far has been participating in inclusivity efforts on campus. Her position as the outreach and inclusivity coordinator has opened doors for her to sit on the university’s Bias Incident Response Team, Multicultural Student Advisory Committee and Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Implementation Team as a student representative. Additionally, she has participated in the Student Organization of Latinos/as, the Hmong Student Association, PRIDE, the Black Student Alliance, Inter-Tribal Student Council and Veterans Club.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Ashley said on her participation in multicultural student organizations, “but I still have a lot to learn yet, as I think we all do.”
After navigating her way through four years of college, Ashley surprised herself yet again by running for – and being elected to – president alongside running mate Colton Ashley, a political science major and theater minor from Weyerhaeuser.
“It’s crazy, because if you asked me, I wouldn’t have ever said that this is where I would be,” Ashley said.
Even though it took Ashley a few years to find her footing in student government, Colton knew he wanted to be on Student Senate even before he got his acceptance letter. A high school teacher recommended that Colton attend UW-Eau Claire specifically for its political science program and influential student government.
Even though Colton didn’t participate in Student Senate right away, he knew being involved on campus would be integral to his college experience.
His freshman year, he signed up to be on the University Activities Commission of Student Senate. But life and classes got in the way, and he never attended any meetings. Instead, he became the president of RECing Crew, a Residence Housing Association organization. Sadly, there was little interest in the group, and his first year was its last.
That spring, he re-focused and again found his passion for student government, running for an on-campus Student Senate seat for the following school year. Colton said even though he was excited to be elected to the position, he was disappointed with the race. Only nine students ran for the 11 on-campus spots available.
“I knew then, there was a problem with lack of communication, a lack of availability, outreach that the Senate brought to the student body” Colton said. “And I told myself, ‘You know, this could be a great opportunity for us to reach out and branch out.’”
His sophomore year was his first year with not only Student Senate, but also with Young Americans for Liberty, the campus libertarian organization. He was immediately elected to be the vice president. This year, he joined campus fraternity Delta Sigma Phi. He said being part of the fraternity has provided him with a tight-knit community that comes together to help each other during times of need.
UW-Eau Claire’s Student Senate is one of the most influential student governments in the nation in terms of their responsibilities in shared governance with the University Senate. Executive members of the body sit on university administrative committees, and student senators represent Blugolds at local, state and federal levels. Student Senate also allocates roughly $17 million annually, an amount that includes over $4 million in segregated fees, the $1.2 million Information Technology budget and the $11 million Blugold Commitment Differential Tuition budget.
Members of Student Senate work directly on issues affecting students through seven commissions: Academic Affairs, Finance, Information Technology, Intergovernmental Affairs, Campus Affairs, University Activities and the Student Office of Sustainability. Non-senators are welcome and encouraged to be involved by joining these commissions.
But both Ashley and Colton said they’re concerned that many students aren’t aware of the mission and responsibilities of Student Senate.
“The biggest change is going to be our relationship with students. If our students don’t trust us, how can we expect to be the voice of our students? To me, that’s a big issue,” Ashley said. “A number of students that I have worked with this past year have been like, ‘Oh yeah, Student Senate’s a joke.’ It’s painful to hear that, because we’re supposed to be serving students, and they think we’re a joke. So we have to become one and actually work together.”
“We want to build partnerships with people,” Colton said. “We all wanted to be a part of Student Senate for the cause of helping the students, for their experiences on campus, for it to be a joyful one: one that’s a great learning environment, one in which you’re able to connect with people, make friends and all that stuff. What we’re striving for is to have people from different areas to be a part of this vision, and to include more people – more groups of people – and it all starts with those partnerships.”
A vision for visibility
Ashley said after being appointed to her position as the outreach and inclusivity coordinator, she saw a disconnect between Student Senate and the students they serve.
“The one thing I noticed was the representation on Student Senate,” Ashley said. “It is very homogenous – it’s predominantly one voice on Student Senate, which is a problem when you’re trying to represent your student body.”
Colton said that he and Ashley both plan on making one small change that could make a large impact in their communication with fellow Blugolds: stepping out of the suits and into the student body. Colton said the business casual attire currently required by Student Senate makes them seem removed from the average student on campus.
“Ashley and I, we’re politically polar opposites for the most part. But that’s one common ground that we can find,” Colton said. “If we want to get rid of that stigma, we have to be more inviting, we have to go out, and we have to talk to people in different departments that were never reached before.”
The duo said during their campaign, they started conversations with departments across campus that have felt out of the loop when it comes to Student Senate, including Blugold athletics and those housed in the Haas Fine Arts Center.
“We reached out to people in Haas,” Colton said. “They have always been – and I’ve heard this too from a lot of people over there – they’ve always been given the short end of the stick. I don’t know whether or not it’s just because they’re across the bridge, but a lot of the music and art, theater majors and minors, you know, have no clue what exactly Student Senate does.”
Student Senate annually allocates $200,000 of segregated fees to the music department, something Colton said a lot of students were surprised to learn.
“We have to get that information out, whether we have to work with administration, faculty and staff, and the students, to make sure and relay that information that this is an important entity,” Colton said.
Ashley added that she plans to work more closely with campus media organizations including TV-10, the Spectator and Blugold Radio in order to make Student Senate more visible on campus.
Colton’s ideas for campus engagement are quite simple. In order to communicate with students, he said, they have to be present.
“Just sit down at a table and talk to people,” Colton said, later adding, “If we just sit in the office the entire day and not do anything and just talk to the people who already work in Senate, that’s not really doing the job… We have to be more proactive in our efforts.”
Although Student Senate positions have already been filled for next year, there are many opportunities for non-senators to be involved with the work they do. Ashley said expressing interest in being a part of Student Senate is easier than many students think.
“Contact me! Contact somebody! Come up to the Activities, Involvement, and Leadership Center and talk to the Student Senate office manager,” Ashley said. “There’s tons of commissions and other ways to be involved. To the best of my ability, I certainly won’t be turning people away. We have some commissions that are available to have as many people on them as possible, and I think it would be cool to make sure everyone has a spot that they can be a part of. I think that will be a big change for us in the upcoming year.”
If there’s one thing students need to know about their student body president and vice president, it’s that these Blugolds will be working hard to make sure their voices — and the voices of their fellow students — are heard.
Photo caption: Ashley Sukhu and Colton Ashley are thrilled they were elected to serve as president and vice president for the UW-Eau Claire Student Senate.