This One Time at Student Government Camp

This week, I attended an overnight retreat with some 40 student government presidents from Tennessee universities, community colleges and colleges of applied technology, hosted by the Tennessee Board of Regents.

No, I am not the SGA president at TCAT Nashville, but our school’s rep got called up to the Navy before the retreat, so the administration asked if I would go in her place. Between you and me, I think my friends in admin just thought I looked like I could use a day in the woods. And I figured if I was going back to college full-time, I may as well go all in.

Imagine your favorite camp movie —maybe Meatballs, Camp Rock, or even Pitch Perfect 2, which doesn’t hold a candle to the original but is set at a leadership retreat.  Now imagine it set at Deer Run Retreat in Thompson Station, Tenn., populated with adorable mini donkeys and framed by the complex geometry of trees. Then insert one idiosyncratic 46-year-old character who doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the cast. That was me. Then again, the out-of-place weirdo is the crux of any camp movie worth its salt.

On one hand, the whole shebang of trust falls, name games, candy bars, and bunk beds made me wish I was 20 all over again. But like any trading-places movie where characters walk a mile in each other’s shoes to discover nothing is as easy as it seems, the  student government retreat showed me how much young people have on their minds today. I’m not sure I could handle it.

When Tennessee Board of Regents Vice Chairman Emily Reynolds and Chancellor Flora Tydings spoke to the group at lunch, these were the main topics on the minds of Tennessee students from across the state:

  • Campus security. Students would like to see campuses do more to prevent and prepare for crimes including sexual assault, theft, and shootings.
  • Health. They are worried about the opioid crisis, mental health, and students’ arriving on campus without immunizations to prevent disease outbreaks.
  • Workforce development. Kids want to be prepared to get jobs in their communities.
  • Credit transfers. Students want their credits from TCATs to apply toward requirements at community colleges and universities, to provide a pathway through higher education in Tennessee.
  • Tuition equality for undocumented students. Students have strong opinions on both sides of this question: Some reps want equal access to affordable college tuition, regardless of citizenship status; others fear that non-citizen students might take limited classroom resources from residents. (The Tennessee Board of Regents supports tuition equality for undocumented students. Vice Chairman Reynolds said, “We have seen the human face” of the issue.)

Of course, the students also had lots of playful things on their minds this week at Deer Run Retreat, where we dabbled on a muddy ropes course, played blindfolded leadership games, and spent an afternoon at the lake on ziplines and boats. But the main point of this trip was not lost on this cohort of unusually bright and engaged young people studying everything from Surgical Technology to Heating, Ventilation and Cooling. As one first-generation college student studying economic and environmental impacts of transportation told me over ham sandwiches and Fritos, “There is so much you can do with education.”


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