BY ABBY BAKER ’19
Student government officials from the Seven Sisters gathered at Mount Holyoke on Nov. 11 for the annual Seven Sisters Leadership Conference. The conference, which takes place at a different Seven Sisters college each year, provides students with the opportunity to network and discuss student governance.
“I think the Seven Sisters Conference is really about creating connections among those schools, and specifically the students who are leading their student governments,” said Alicia Erwin, director of Student Programs. “[It’s] a chance for them to come together to learn from each other, and to strategize about how to best serve their respective communities — hearing what is working, or not, on the other campuses and taking the time to have honest conversations about engaging in shared governance at their schools.”
This year, a total of 60 students attended from Mount Holyoke, Smith, Wellesley, Vassar, Barnard and Bryn Mawr. Delegates arrived on Friday afternoon and attended the keynote address by speaker Courtney Brunson ’15 on Saturday morning. Students then attended four discussion and information sessions: “Moving Beyond Personal Identities: Connecting with a Diverse Student Body,” “Supporting Students of Transgender Experience(s): Gender Inclusive Women’s Colleges,” “Free Speech at a Liberal Arts College: What Counts as Free Speech?,” and “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: How to Hold the College Administration Accountable.”
Ivonne Ramirez, assistant director for Student Programs and Leadership at Mount Holyoke, led the session on free speech. Students discussed the 14th Amendment, which extends the rights of the First Amendment to students at public universities. Ramirez noted that none of the students at the conference attended public universities, and that free speech rights at private institutions are usually determined by student handbooks, codes of conduct and other contracts between the institution and individuals. At the session, students discussed the role of student governance in maintaining free speech, and considered the following scenario: the events a campus organization have hosted, such as inviting a controversial speaker to lecture on campus, have sparked outrage among many students and some are calling for the student government to derecognize the group.
The issue bears immediate relevance for many schools. The Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union, for example, recently hosted Cornell professor and
conservative-leaning blogger Professor William Jacobson for a lecture on campus. The speech was originally called “‘Hate Speech’ is Free Speech, Even After Charlottesville,” and was later changed to “An Examination of Hate Speech and Free Speech on College Campuses.” The original title and the name change, combined with Jacobson’s writings, led to outrage among members of the student body; some students demanded that the event be canceled, according to The Cornell Daily Sun. However, the event proceeded as scheduled; nearly 200 people attended, though dozens were dressed in black as a form of protest.
Ramirez said that it was “an honor” to present for the attendees. “In my sessions, I was able to create the space for students to analyze themselves and help them navigate the role of representing the student body and their identities and to ultimately help them see that they don’t have to lose their identity themselves in order to serve the school,” she said.
Mount Holyoke SGA President Camille Gladieux ’18 ran the workshop on “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.” Gladieux had planned for students to group themselves according to school and practice the five-step process of enacting policy change that Mount Holyoke’s SGA uses, but instead the students mainly wanted general information and to have a discussion on “how Mount Holyoke is able to go through the process of shared governance.”
“It didn’t run as planned,” Gladieux said, “but I thought that the conversations we had during the workshop were really insightful and I think we all took away different things that can be implemented at our schools.”
For Gladieux, it was her third and final Seven Sisters Conference, so the experience, she said, was “bittersweet.”
The conference’s closing ceremony took place on Sunday, Nov. 12. Valerie Montesino ’19, vice president of Mount Holyoke’s Student Government and organizer of the conference, said, “The most impactful part of the conference for me was the closing ceremony where we gathered in a big circle and shared what we took away from the conference. It was amazing to vividly see the relationships that were created after only working with the student leaders of the other schools for a day. The individual’s passion and drive to make a difference on their campus is something I’ll never forget. Planning this conference was no easy task and that morning really reminded me why it was all worth it.”
Montesino led the Seven Sisters Committee, a task force comprised of SGA’s executive board as well as eight people who applied through Committee Yourself Week. The Committee began meeting last semester and was responsible for creating a budget, coordinating catering services, communicating logistics with the other schools, meeting with Erwin on a weekly basis to ensure plans were on track and organizing hosts for all guests.
“Mount Holyoke has a significantly better working relationship with our administration in comparison to other schools and we are able to get more things done within our system,” Gladieux said. “A lot of schools said that they were impressed by us.”
Montesino agreed. “After speaking to the delegates from the other schools, I learned that although MHC has a lot of things to work on, our administration is accessible and willing to work with us,” she said. “The conference in its entirety has allowed me to appreciate MHC more.”
Montesino said she also gained an appreciation for the connections that can be forged among students at the Seven Sister schools. Barnard College is currently working on a Pen Pal Program and Alumni Database to strengthen those bonds.
“The ultimate goal is to create a safer space for us to have these hard conversations about the reality on our campuses and empower each other to use the resources we have to ask questions and demand answers,” Montesino said. “At the conference, we are reminded of the importance of our roles and how are voices can really make a difference.”