By Anna Liz Thomas
After a tumultuous time for the Welfare Committee in Autumn 2022 culminating in a vote to remove the Welfare Committee (WC) President from office, the elections process for a new President is now underway. The electoral debate with the two candidates running for the position-Angie Bittar (1st-year MDEV) and Areen De (1st-year MDEV)- took place on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.
The moderator for the debate was GISA President Aishwarya Tendolkar, and she was assisted by the Vice President for Masters’ Programmes, Lorena Villavicencio, who is also acting as the interim point of contact for the Welfare Committee after the removal of the former WC President. Aishwarya began by explaining the rules for the Debate, and asked if there was anyone else who wished to declare their candidature for the position of the WC President. In the absence of any responses, the floor was then handed over to the two candidates to present their platform.
Angie began by introducing herself, and her background explaining how she understood the need to provide a voice to the student body, being a dedicated member of the Institute’s community. In preparation for the day, she had conducted an informal survey on the average student experience with the Welfare Committee. In summary, she had arrived at the understanding that the Welfare Committee in the previous semester had lost sight of the very thing that their mandate stood for: the welfare of students at the Institute. This was the reason she chose to run for WC President. Angie then brought up her five years of professional experience in teaching, research and advocacy, she wished to bring her insight into how welfare can help achieve goals and maintain motivation. She spoke of how her proposals may not seem novel, given that they simply attest to what the student community has already been asking for. Angie proposed regular and thorough communication with students through formal and informal means, incorporation of more student-led activities, and providing students with more opportunities to share their passions outside of academia, cultivate a space for peer support and wellbeing, and create long-term sustainable partnerships with other initiatives to best address the specific needs of their communities and amplify their work. She also expressed her intention to advocate with the administration, regarding the needs of students that arise throughout the semester. In summary, in the role of WC President, she hopes to make the campus more accessible, help the students know what their resources are, have access to mental health resources, and ensure a safe space for all students, with an accountable and transparent student representation. She concluded by expressing her willingness to rebuild the Institute’s sense of trust and community.
Areen was next. He spoke of how he had stood for the Welfare Committee elections last October, and had chosen to join the Welfare Committee as the Treasurer, despite having lost by three votes for the position of the President. He admitted that the Welfare Committee had fallen short in terms of fulfilling their commitments, and that the members of the WC had to take collective responsibility for the same. He pointed out that despite this, he had, in his role as Treasurer, ensured that payments are made, and that the existing initiatives continued, and provided support to students who reached out. With respect to his platform, his goal as WC President would be to continue and improve existing initiatives and to start new initiatives. With respect to continuing existing initiatives, he spoke of restarting Yoga, Zumba, meditation and movie nights. He discussed the need to improve the unofficial course reviews in collaboration with the VP for Masters’ Programmes, as well as provide more country-specific guidance for incoming students in the context of visa and documentation, especially for non-EU students. With respect to new initiatives, Areen brought up collaborations with the new Outdoors Initiative which, with the help of funding from GISA, could provide opportunities for students to hike, ski and engage in sports. He also discussed the work underway in the context of the Housing Committee, before his speech was cut short, having exceeded the 5-minute limit.
WC’s Fund Crunch
The next part of the debate was a Q&A session where audience members could pose questions to the running candidates. The first question raised was concerning what the candidates proposed to do in the context of the WC’s lack of funds, and its lack of transparency in the context of the initiatives it undertook.
In response to this Areen stated that the data in the context of the run-out of funds for the Zumba class, and the additional request for flex funds from GISA was all on record. He also specified that they had submitted their budget request for the Spring Semester and would have to ask for additional funds for additional activities. Angie responded by saying that while the existing initiatives should continue, they did not scratch the surface in terms of what the WC should be doing. Therefore in that context, her first and foremost priority would be in the context of providing more crucial resources, especially in the context of mental health support.
To a subsequent question about the general experience of fund paucity within the WC, and the need to monetise the activities that the candidates were keen on organising in the long term, Angie suggested that it is quite possible that we overestimate how much some of these events cost, and that she would find ways to utilise the talents within the student community, in order to serve them. She personally is certified to teach yoga, belly-dancing and guided meditation, and would be willing to share with the rest of the community on a non-profit basis. Areen discussed the possibility of students funding some of the activities that the WC has planned, in order to ensure that instructors are paid, and create the possibility for the WC to also divert some of these funds for other activities that students could benefit from.
Building trust and engagement
The GISA President then asked how the two candidates planned to revive trust within the student community, given how things had panned out in the past with the WC, and its reputation.
In response to this Angie said that the reason she decided to run was to not just be in the position of President, but to also act as an echo for what students are saying. She wants to be more accessible directly, without red tape, and provide avenues for students to reach out and ask questions, which she has already begun to do through the survey and through sit down meetings with students. Areen connected some of the ongoing trust issues with the failure of leadership at the WC in the previous semester, as well as issues when it came to communications and maintaining minutes. He spoke of the need for an administrative director within the WC who can ensure that all tasks are being done by the members of the WC, and ensure that information is provided to the student body in terms of accessible minutes of meetings or newsletters.
Lorena then asked a question about how student engagement with the WC can be built, given that the WC is structured like other student initiatives, and are therefore not allowed to email the entire student body. In response to this Areen suggested that WC activities were kept as diverse and varied as possible in order to ensure that as many students can participate, as possible. Angie suggested that disengagement with the WC might have been due to a lack of trust, and therefore the best way to build trust would be to stay present in spaces where trust and engagement is established. This could be by partnering with other student initiatives, host welfare collaborations with the regional initiatives specific to what those students may be facing. As an example, she suggested how it may be the Eastern European regional initiative that may be most in need of support at this point. This could then act to provide visibility to the WC, and avenues for engagement.
A question was raised about how the candidates planned to collaborate with the Institute to provide better in-house therapy. Angie agreed that WC has the responsibility to take up this issue with the student administration. She also discussed the possibility of creating a resource of local therapists who are bilingual or multilingual, and willing to subsidise their fees for students, or are already affordable under insurance. She also discussed the possibility of collaborating with UNIGE students who might be preparing their doctoral studies in psychology, who may be able to volunteer their time, or collaborate with IHEID students in a manner that benefits both parties. Areen mentioned that one of the reasons the Institute was reluctant to increase mental health counselling sessions was because students did not use them even after the number of sessions was increased. . While Areen confessed to not having much experience in this context, he suggested that the WC needs to advocate with the Institute to provide more options for students. Areen also agreed with Angie’s suggestion that the WC could collaborate with other therapists, and other universities in this area. He also brought up how there can be a lot of stonewalling from the Institute with every proposal that is brought before them, and therefore constant advocacy can be promised on the part of the WC.
Lorena brought up how insurance coverage can be difficult when there are high deductibles, and she asked the candidates how they could tackle the issue when many students may have to pay out of pocket for therapy sessions. She also provided information on an existing partnership with UNIGE, where subsidised therapy sessions are available to students. Angie responded to this by discussing her own experience having transitioned from US insurance, and she expressed her willingness to share her understanding of the insurance system in Switzerland, and some loopholes that may be available. She also discussed an ongoing project in collaboration with individual therapists, and how the WC at the very least could begin by compiling a list of contacts for individuals who may be able to provide subsidised services for students. She suggested either a student-initiated or Institute-driven collective fund for students in need of urgent mental health care to be undertaken, with evaluation of need done at the time. Areen confessed to not knowing a lot about the insurance system in Switzerland, and how pricing works, but suggested a data collection exercise on different therapy providers, and how exactly this is linked to student insurance. In the short term, he suggested reaching out to students trained in therapy, so that urgent needs are met, and something could be done in the longer run with the Institute in a more systemic fashion.
A final question was asked about what the candidates do to take care of their own mental health. Angie said that a lot of her selfcare comes from her spirituality. She also meditates daily, does yoga, and writes. She spoke of the possibility of engaging the Common Room for meditative painting sessions, where the WC provides some watercolours and paper, to provide a brief outlet for pure, uninhibited relaxation. Areen spoke about how he divides his day into four buckets, academic, physical, emotional and professional. He also spoke about how the Welfare Committee also fulfils the professional bucket, where he can hopefully reach out to as many people to help them, so that they can help in return when he may need wellbeing support.
In closing, Areen concluded by reiterating that he was the only contestant from the past WC Presidential elections who had chosen to stay with the Committee, and continue despite instances of unprofessionalism and racism. He affirmed that there had been no lack of professionalism on his part, and that he wished to continue doing what he had already been doing in the interest of students. Angie said that she was present as a student, and was not looking to add this to her resume, or for any untoward gain. She reiterated her willingness to build bridges that had been burned, and her readiness to make a change for the betterment of everyone.
The debate concluded with Aishwarya and Lorena thanking the candidates for their speeches and for responding to questions, and wishing them luck. A reminder was issued that voting would open on March 4th at noon and close after 24 hours on March 5th. Candidates were also encouraged to campaign and share posters in the interim period.
Picture from Unsplash.com