Zarnab Virk ’20 is the departing president of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG). The Daily Princetonian sat down with Virk for an exit interview to reflect on her tenure. The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: How do you feel having finished your term?
Zarnab Virk: I feel like it was a really long journey. It was a great experience, but I think I am glad to be able to have time to work on academic work like my thesis. Hopefully, this next semester will be really thesis-focused, and I would love to have more free time to hang out with friends and enjoy the last of college.
DP: Can you think of any highlights from your time as president?
ZV: There were several highlights in terms of things that we got done. A few of them that come to mind are the Academics Committee working on the CPT/OPT [Curricular Practical Training/Optional Practical Training] reform, which was over the summer because, as you may know, a bunch of international students were not able to work during their internships during this time.
Another big initiative that we had was sustainability, so we passed two referenda for that. Our Sustainability Task Force is now also a standing committee of USG, so it’s more institutionalized. I’m glad we got to do a lot of work with sustainability and also work with the Office of Sustainability to create a carbon-neutral campus plan.
Another one of the big ones was menstrual products in bathrooms.
DP: Are there any challenges that come to mind?
ZB: I feel like for a lot of the initiatives or projects that were started by either myself or members of USG, a lot of times there would be a lot of roadblocks to accomplishing those things. For example, they would have been tried in the past and, like, they wouldn’t have worked out then, either, and they are still not working out now. There were a lot of challenges with pushing things forward. A lot of the policies with the University are very institutionalized. They’ve been around for a long time, and then it takes a proportionately long time to change things that have been around for so long.
DP: In practice, what do the roadblocks you mentioned look like?
ZB: One thing is people you have to talk to, and there’s also the changes that go on with the University and the shifting campus climate. For example, one of the things that I had intended to do was bring electric scooters to campus, like a scooter share program. I was starting the conversation with Lyft Scooters, Lime Scooters, things like that, starting the conversations there. I’d begun outside conversations, but within the University, there had already been concerns about the growing number of scooters that students have on campus and how this has affected student safety. So it shifted from having the goal be [to] bring more scooters on to campus to, by the end of the year, ... working with the student life committee to help ensure scooter safety to block off pathways so scooters wouldn’t be used as much. A lot of the time, it was a result of natural shifts that happen on campus and not knowing this ahead of time.
DP: Are there particular things that you’ve learned over the past year?
ZV: I would say I’ve learned a lot specifically about teamwork, how to work with people of different opinions and how to bring that back into a group. I feel like one of the main things I learned from this was to be able to take constructive criticism to better myself and to be able to learn from this both as a person and a leader.
DP: Did anything surprise you about being USG president?
ZV: Yeah, one of the things that surprised me, kind of similar to the scooter example, was how much of our work was kind of on an as-needed basis and as things came up. I was expecting I would go in with my platform and my project timeline and things would go this way and that’s how it would be ... But what I realized very soon after coming into the job is that as things would come up on campus, you have to respond to them in the moment. For example, with something like student activism, as it was in the past spring, it came up and we had to respond to it in the moment. I feel like a lot of the work that we’ve done was on an as-needed basis, rather than things that we had planned for.
DP: Could you speak specifically to your experience being the USG president during the protests last spring?
ZV: I think this particularly was a difficult position to be in just because the content of the activism is something that I definitely support myself, but being in this position, I had to be careful about having USG as a whole decide to respond to it in certain ways. The content was also triggering for a lot of students, so it wasn’t something that we wanted to be pushing out more in-your-face on a daily basis. So I think the approach we took was to help the students get in touch with the administrators to relay these messages, and as that transitioned to the summer, the University created a couple of different working groups to work on this, and [I], along with a few members of USG, served on that group.
DP: Are there other things that you think the student body doesn’t know about USG or about the things that go on behind the scenes?
ZV: There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that students don't know about. It’s interesting to be on the other side of it because I know I see all these Daily Prince articles coming out about the new administration, and I think it’s pretty easy to not be very informed about what’s going on behind the scenes if you’re not in USG, which I hadn’t really realized until this last month, when I wasn’t actively participating in it.
I guess a lot of people assume that we are either Class Gov[ernment] and we do gear and giveaways and study breaks, but we don’t do any of that. We do gear giveaways for Dean’s Date once a year. I think a lot of campus doesn’t know that the Senate is really involved in so many aspects of University policies and decisions and sometimes the smallest things, like, is there enough lighting on the pathways on campus? Are these bushes sticking out on the sidewalk? Could facilities take care of that to make the sidewalks safer for students? … Or larger campus planning events, like working with the architects of the new University health building, … giving them feedback on things, like what kind of lighting would students like to see, what kind of design, what would make students feel comfortable in this new space.
The main thing is, people don't know how involved we really are in a bunch of different aspects of the University. I think in those aspects, our main role is to act as student voice and be the student representatives on these different types of committees, or even when the University seeks us out and comes to our meetings, for student input, our job is really to amplify the voice of the student body.
DP: Is there anything you wish you could have done differently?
ZV: Not necessarily done differently, but one thing that I found to be very challenging, especially in the first couple of months, was that I was not previously on the USG Senate before coming in, so I feel like I was kind of thrown in to this leadership position that I had not been in before and that many of the members had a lot of experience in. So I wish that I had run for a Senate position earlier and gotten some experience being on a part of the Senate, so I would have come into the position fully prepared. Of course I did catch up. I think it took about a month, or a month and a half to catch up, but I do think there was a really large learning curve. I wish that I had had the experience so that I would have come in knowing what to expect. Yeah, kind of knowing a little bit more about the roadblocks that can happen when you try to make policy changes in the University.
DP: Is there anything you’d change about how USG works?
ZV: One thing about USG is that I wish it could be larger in some sense and more representative in a way. For example, in one of my conversations with administrators, I think it might have been VP Calhoun, they were telling me about another university they worked at and their student governments had a hand in a lot more of the student groups on campus. Now we are very active in the administrative side of school changes, but I wish that we had more members from different student groups, for example have a couple members of the ICC (Interclub Council) on there, or a couple of members of certain groups like the Carl A. Fields Center groups, a couple of RCAs, … so we could really have a system where the Senate is a much larger body and where these representatives can go and report to and from or between USG and their own groups.
DP: And is there anything you wish you could change about Princeton in general?
ZV: Not particularly, I like it! I think one thing is that the student culture of being super busy all the time and being very academically focused, which obviously is a great thing, is probably one of the reasons why students aren’t involved in organizations like USG. Like, you know, when you have an exam coming up, you’re not going to want to read some long emails about policy changes. It’s just a comment. I wouldn’t really want to change it.
DP: Do you have any advice for future USG presidents?
ZV: I guess one piece of advice is to be as adaptable and as open minded as possible because a lot of the things that come up are unexpected, or things that you can’t plan for, things that you have to be ready to take on in the moment. Adaptability and coming in with an open mind. I also think it’s important to not have a long list of smaller things that you want to get done, but to focus on two or three larger things that you want to do really well. I think that’s something that I wish that I had done better to really hone in on a few different things, rather than doing a little bit of everything.