Anushka Sarkar and Nadine Jawad: Reflections On a Year in Office
By Hannah Harshe
Not many people truly understand how Anushka Sarkar feels in her role as president of Central Student Government at the University of Michigan. In fact, across all of campus, there isn’t a single person who does. But this isn’t to say that Sarkar is all alone; she does have someone who truly understands her. This “someone” just isn’t a person. In fact, it’s a tower—specifically, Burton Memorial Tower.
Sarkar cites the top of this tower as her favorite place on campus. “I feel like it’s the perfect embodiment of how I sometimes feel in this role. I’m able to see everything from the top, but it’s quiet.”
I ask her how she ended up in a position to be allowed to climb to the top of the tower. Sarkar laughs and says, “You’ve gotta know this guy.”
We are sitting at a table in the lobby of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library along with CSG Vice President Nadine Jawad and their communications director, Cassie Fields. Two things stand out to me about Sarkar: her dark pink lipstick and her demeanor. There’s something about the latter that I can’t quite put a finger on. She emanates an almost tangible combination of what appears to be wisdom and experience. Or perhaps it’s just exhaustion. I have spent my afternoon interviewing candidates for next year’s CSG President and Vice President, most of whom overflow with excitement and enthusiasm. Sarkar has a different quality about her. She is not much older than next year’s candidates (in fact, she’s younger than some of them), and yet she comes off as strikingly more mature.
“He’s on CSG and his name is Kevin Yang,” Sarkar continues, speaking of the “guy” who brought her to the top of the tower. “He’s a renaissance man. We don’t know how we found him. But he’s our treasurer and he plays the carillon, which is the bell on the bell tower. He plays it beautifully, so sometimes he’ll take me up there and teach me how to play it. I’m horrible at it. I’ve never once played a song correctly, but he’s extremely patient.”
Burton Memorial Tower, more commonly known as the bell tower, was built in 1921, and it overlooks much of central campus. I pass it every day on my walk to class, as do thousands of other students. The bell tower watches over us, day in and day out, studying for exams as we walk down North University, calling our parents to ensure them that we’re doing fine, even if we haven’t slept in over 24 hours and are drinking coffee on an empty stomach. The bell tower sees our heavy backpacks and senses the heavier loads we’re carrying, those that are invisible to the naked eye but have made themselves known in the past year: discrimination, marginalization, and blatant hatred that students have to face every single day. As CSG president, Sarkar is distinctly aware that students at this university are carrying heavy loads, and she feels a unique and pressing responsibility to lighten these loads. But, like the bell tower as it looks down on us, there is only so much she can do. She’s able to see everything, but it’s quiet.
When I ask Sarkar what she would do if she had another year as president, she immediately answers, “Oh, my god. Call for my own impeachment.”
This is not to say that Sarkar hates, or even dislikes, her position as CSG president. “Nadine and I have just been saying that this past year has just flown by,” she says. “We feel like we’ve been flying by the seat of our pants for the entirety of it, and we haven’t been able to take a second to reflect on what a life-changing and impactful year it’s been for the two of us individually. It’s unbelievable that it’s been a year.”
Jawad agrees: “I feel like I remember more about campaigning than I do about the last year. It just went by so fast that now I feel so much nostalgia thinking about the elections. It literally feels like it didn’t happen, but so much happened in that time that it’s just bittersweet.”
Sarkar and Jawad have plenty to be proud of in this past year. They were instrumental in Michigan signing on to the Big Ten Voting Challenge and have authored several resolutions relating to voter turnout. Since then, they’ve leveraged their position on CSG to advocate on a state level for bipartisan policies regarding voting and voter turnout.
“I feel like that’s something that unifies students around each other,” Jawad says. “People from all different backgrounds have come together to work on the Challenge.”
They also launched Innovate, which is a public service pitch competition that CSG began hosting in December, with the goal of expanding interest in public service across various academic backgrounds.
“It’s an important demonstration of our belief that student fee money and student government should be investing energy and resources into student projects that will improve public service, and could frankly be used in county and city offices around here,” explains Sarkar.
Another success of Sarkar and Jawad’s administration is a program that aims to provide free menstrual hygiene products to students across campus, which has been implemented as a result of a partnership with the student organization Women’s Organization on Rights to Health (WORTH).
“We have free menstrual hygiene products in four bathrooms on campus, and one of the bathrooms is gender neutral,” Sarkar says. “Basically, we’re gathering data on the usage of those products to bring forth a proposal to the university to fund free menstrual hygiene products on every bathroom across campus.”
On paper, it certainly appears that Sarkar and Jawad had a productive, successful year. But paper can only tell so much of a story and, to Sarkar and Jawad, the success of these projects are only a minor detail of their administration.
Sarkar says of these projects, “With all of the divisiveness that we’ve experienced in the last couple of years, it was important to have projects that people could rally around.”
A year ago, Sarkar and Jawad were in the middle of campaigning for the Central Student Government executive ticket. Their party, which is called eMerge, focused its campaign promises on plans to increase diversity and inclusion on campus and to increase community engagement. eMerge was officially endorsed by The Michigan Daily, and on March 24th, 2017, Sarkar and Jawad became the first female candidates elected as President and VP on the same ticket in the last decade, and the first women of color ever to be voted into office.
At the time, they had no idea what they had gotten themselves into.
“I expected it to be a difficult year, but I don’t think I realized how difficult it would be until it was happening to us,” Sarkar says.
Jawad agrees: “There’s just so many things you can’t prepare for when you’re planning an election. You have an agenda, and you have your platform, and that’s something that you look forward to working on, but sometimes those things have to take second priority to emergency things that happen on campus. So many people are looking to us to give voice or comment on those issues, and it’s hard because it all happens so fast.”
“There were a lot of campus climate related things that came across our plates. I think we saw them coming from a mile away, but we didn’t realize just how difficult it would be to deal with and what other compounding factors would come into play,” says Sarkar.
When I probe Sarkar to delve a little further into the “campus climate related things” that made the year so difficult, she explains, “I try not to give too much attention to the issues that divide our campus because I think that’s exactly what those kinds of people or instigators want from us. To pay attention to them.”
She’s probably right, but since she doesn’t want to discuss details, I will. On September 2nd, the phrase “f--- Latinos” was painted on the Rock, which is a U of M landmark frequently painted by students. On September 17th, three black students found their dorm room doors vandalized with racial slurs. That same day, racist graffiti reading “Free Dylann Roof, I Hate N----” was displayed on campus. The university was soon rife with protests, and in October, prominent white supremacist speaker Richard Spencer requested to speak at the University of Michigan, launching what is perhaps one of the most controversial debates the university has ever seen.
Through all that, 46,000 students looked to Sarkar and Jawad to be provide solutions and create change. For that reason, I believe Sarkar when she says that if she could go back a year and tell herself anything, she would say, “No matter how hard you think it’s going to be, it’s going to be a hundred times harder than that. So prepare yourself.”
Although barriers are being built at this university every single day, there may not be two students more equipped to deal with this than Sarkar and Jawad. They did, after all, destroy barriers simply by being elected.
Jawad, who is Lebanese-American and wears a hijab, says, “I remember my freshman year was my first election, and CSG just looked different. There just weren’t that many minorities in that space, and I didn’t know any Muslims in CSG at that time. So from my perspective, it’s been so transformative to see people from my community, but also from all communities, want to get involved. Not just racial differences, SES backgrounds, sexual orientation. It’s been so nice to see that shift in diversity and to empower people.”
Sarkar and Jawad both took the situation they were given and used it to implement positive change. For one, they brought forth an off-cycle amendment to the university’s Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities. This amendment ensures that if a student brings forth a complaint about bias-motivated misconduct, that charge will be evaluated not only for the act of misconduct itself, but also the act of bias motivation.
“That’s to create a deterrent effect so that students know that our community values various identities and that we are willing to protect those identities,” Sarkar explains. “We’ll hear back in a couple of months whether President Schlissel has signed off on that, but I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll get a yes on that.”
That’s not to say that it’s easy to promote inclusion on a campus that’s so rife with tension. “I’ve definitely learned a lot about how frustrating it can be to feel like you have a massive institution with a huge budget and platform at your disposal and still feel like you can’t fix problems on campus,” Sarkar laments. “Because they are invisible, and they’re coming from shadows, and sometimes they’re not even actually on campus, they’re just whispering around campus. So to sit around the seats that we do, figuratively speaking, and feel like we have all these tools at our disposal, but still not be able to feel like we’re fixing the problem, it takes a personal toll on you.”
Despite their high-pressure roles, when it comes down to it, Sarkar and Jawad are simply students who care deeply about impacting the lives of those at the university.
“I was in a class last semester about the history of radicalism in the United States,” Sarkar says. “One portion of the class was talking about the movements across the country for ending apartheid in South Africa, and we literally read the statements of student leaders and student government presidents from across the country during that period. I kept thinking to myself, what if in thirty years, somebody’s reading a statement we wrote, or a statement our predecessors wrote? Every time something happens on campus that requires attention and community organizing, I’m reminded of just how important this platform we have is.”
“Everybody is here because they care,” Jawad adds. “Nobody wakes up and willingly just decides, hey, I’m gonna dedicate twenty of my twenty-four hours to student government. That’s crazy.”
So what exactly does make somebody wake up and decide to dedicate their time on campus to student government? According to Sarkar and Jawad, it takes a deeply-seeded passion for this university.
“I’ve visited other schools. Michigan really had to grow on me, and I’ve been really upfront about that with a lot of people,” Sarkar admits. “But everyone here cares so much about something. Sometimes it’s the school, sometimes it’s their major, sometimes it’s their club or org, whatever it is, people have startups here, people have their fashion lines, they have art that they do. It’s amazing to see the fire in people here.”
Jawad elaborates on that, stating, “The faculty and mentorship here is just phenomenal. I’ve studied at other universities at study abroad or summer term, and I’ve met great people at all these places. But here, there are people that you don’t even know that are so determined to invest in you. Everything that I am right now is because there’s a person who told me you need to apply for this, or you need to run for this. Recognizing the kind of mentorship that comes with the faculty and professorship here is just so rewarding.”
But when it comes to her challenging role as Vice President, Jawad firmly believes that she is gaining from it as much as anyone else: “We give forty, fifty, however many hours a week to people on this campus or in the community, but I think every single thing is mutualistic. Every single hard experience teaches you how to act in another situation like that.”
This spring, not only will Sarkar and Jaward step down from their roles as President and Vice President, but they will graduate from this university. They will certainly not graduate as the same people that they were in 2014, when they were freshman.
The biggest lesson Jawad learned? Speak, even if your voice cracks.
“I remember someone texting me during one of the meetings, and she said, ‘Even though your voice cracked, it’s good that you spoke about something,’” she shares. “How many times do I speak in front of the assembly, and I get so nervous because I’ve got to say the right thing? But the ability to stand in front of the room and say something is already such a humbling thing and such an amazing thing.”
As for Sarkar, after this year, she feels as though she’s unstoppable.
Sarkar says, “I feel like I’ve toughened up so much that almost nothing could break me at this point. There were so many moments in this past year where I just felt like I was gonna break down. I was being beaten down by the pressures of this position. I’m leaving this school year feeling like absolutely nothing will ever scare me again, because if I can handle this, I can handle anything. And that’s the most empowering feeling. So people are like, are you scared, have you figured out any jobs, or where are you moving? And I’m like honestly, I’ll be fine. I’ll figure it out.”
It has been an incredible year looking down at campus from the top of the bell tower, but Sarkar and Jawad are ready to climb down and take the world by storm from solid ground.