Running for the Undergraduate Students Association Council was the best experience of my college career.
That’s not something you’d expect to hear from many. Like many political things, student government elections get painted in an overwhelmingly negative light. Things like candidates attacking each other or trivial differences, inflating their resumes and strategizing to make their opponents look bad can and do happen.
But with just a few months left before I graduate, I look back on my time running as a candidate two years ago and feel the urgency to set the record straight: Elections don’t have to be a toxic annual practice. And the power to change them lies in students’ hands.
If you’re unconvinced, let me share with you my story.
As a freshman, I wrote for the Daily Bruin and thought USAC was a big joke of a popularity contest. The degree of personal politics seemed absurd for a student government. For all the good it seemed to do for our university – programming and events, resources for student groups and advocacy for university policy changes – I thought there must be a more efficient way of making a difference on campus. But by the end of my freshman year, I grew tired of talking and writing about an institution I wasn’t actually involved in.
I took a leap of faith and decided to run for USAC external vice president as a sophomore with Bruins United, a political slate of which, I’ll note for full transparency, I am now the party chair. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and it very well could have been the trivial contest I thought it was. I followed my gut and took what felt at the time a huge risk.
My opponent and I ran positive campaigns. We engaged in vibrant debates and wrote passionate submissions to the Daily Bruin critiquing each other’s policy ideas on everything from college affordability to academic access and retention. We led campaign teams with dozens of students working to help one of us get elected, an empowering and humbling experience, as it put me in a leadership position I had never experienced before. As the winner of an election that came down to half a percentage point – around 100 votes – my view might be biased, but I genuinely felt we both tried our hardest and poured our hearts out for something we each cared so much about.
When students decide to run for USAC, they commit to meeting new people, participating in new student spaces and learning about communities they aren’t part of in order to have a shot at victory. Many people criticize these actions as “fake” or “overly political,” but these endeavors forced me to step outside my comfort zone to listen and learn from students – an incredibly rewarding experience.
I saw the campus from many new lenses – the plethora of student activities and organizations, the variety of living and commuting practices and the intricate challenges particular students and communities face in getting here and graduating on time – that not only allowed me to better serve the student body once I was elected, but also have reshaped my college experience since.
Political things will almost always have critics. Candidates receive all sorts of criticism – some constructive, some not so much – from the moment they announce their intention to run to the day they graduate. I still get it all the time, for not just my positions on issues, but how I sound when I talk to people, and I probably will again for this submission. I’ve developed thick skin because of USAC. At the same time, meeting with so many people outside my social circle allowed me to develop a greater ability to listen and empathize. Those are qualities I’ll carry far beyond UCLA, and I wouldn’t be able to say that if it weren’t for my time as a candidate.
Despite all the negativity surrounding elections, it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m a testament to that. My campaign focused on the issues I cared about and how I wanted to solve them, and countless students, including myself, walked away from the experience with a stronger desire to be civically engaged. We didn’t focus on petty politics. And if you want things to be different, make them so by leading the campaign you want to exist. After all, it is your student government and your elections that you’re in charge of.
If running for USAC is something you’re considering, don’t hold back. Bruins United helped me tremendously when I decided to run by supporting me with mentorship and guidance from other students who had gone through the process. It has historically been the only slate to openly recruit candidates, and this year the process is even more accessible to interested students: Anyone can apply to join the slate, now through the end of this week. If you care enough about UCLA to want to make it better for current and future Bruins, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.
It just might be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.
Sands is the student advisor to the University of California Board of Regents and one of the chairs of the Bruins United campus slate. He served as USAC external vice president in the 2016-17 academic year.