ASSU executive Q&A: Michaela Phan ’23 and Emily Nichols ’23

April 20, 2022, 5:00 p.m.

Michaela Phan ’23 and Emily Nichols ’23 represent one of three executive slates on the ballot for president and vice president of the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU). Together, Nichols and Phan have served as Undergraduate Senate Chair, Black Student Union President, Stanford Women in Law Director of Social Justice, Stanford Women in Law Director of Mentorship, the mental health student representative to CAPS and the Office of the Vice Provost. Both members of the slate have served on the Undergraduate Senate for two years. Their slate has been endorsed by the First Generation and/or Low-Income Partnership (FLIP). Candidates responded to questions via email. Portions of this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: Which objectives will be at the top of your priority list if elected ASSU Executive President and Vice-President?

Michaela and Emily [M&E]:

  1. Build a coalition with BVSOs around departmentalizing AAAS and revising the Stanford Community Plan to further eliminate policing surveillance on-campus. 
  2. Institutionalizing mental health support for FLI and students of color. This includes mandating mental health and wellness days for students and creating a fund for students to receive mental health and wellness support. 
  3. Establishing a Basic Needs Center for students and Stanford workers to receive food, housing, legal, and mental health funds and support. 
    • Distributing the Basic Needs Survey to better understand and represent the landscape of affordability at Stanford.
  4. Increase student engagement with the ASSU, with programming like safe spaces/community talks within ASSU/student advocacy for students of marginalized identities or public service internships. 
  5. Ensuring student input in our action and the action of the university, via support for active student leaders, organizers, and journalists; and resources/mentoring from alumni. We wish to create a hub of resources and support for any member of the student community interested in changing Stanford.
    • Many students across campus are working on numerous issues across Stanford University. To build a coalition and connect student advocates with organizers doing similar work, we hope to create an online/in-person space for students to connect and support one another in initiatives. 
  6. Decreasing bureaucracy wait times in the ASSU; fixing NomComm’s institutional issues, decreasing the probationary period for new VSOs, and creating an ASSU Executive By-laws.
  7. Continue our support of SCoPE 2035 and SWR’s demands for affordable housing and improved working conditions for Stanford workers.
  8. Organize a mutual aid fund for students (specifically for survivors) to receive mental health and wellness and legal support. Currently, survivors are allowed only 9 free hours of legal service.
  9. Increase support offered to student-athletes, whether mental health resources, academic accommodations, or holding NCAA or other athletic conferences accountable for their unclear guidelines.
  10. Continue to push for a permanent, fully-funded Disability Community Center.

TSD: This has been an especially challenging past several months for students at Stanford. What message do you think the Stanford community needs to hear right now?

M&E: At the start of the pandemic, under both Erica + Isaiah’s and Munira and Vianna’s Exec terms, there were incredible amounts of student engagement and energy for the various crises that were taking place. From the unexpected, uncontrollable spread of COVID-19, to all the undergraduates being evicted off-campus with no warning, to the summer riots across the country, to the Stanford community (and global) affordability crisis, to the wildfires, to the 2020 elections; that period was tumultuous, traumatic, and filled with the specific kind of compassionate advocacy we at Stanford are well-known for. The latter Exec team had a campaign slogan of ‘The Time Is Now.’ 

During this period, even as everyone in our community was experiencing immense loss and pain, we still saw members of our community dedicate and often overextend themselves to make impossible things happen. In 2020 alone, we saw the birth of the Stanford Mutual Aid Fund, the ASSU COVID-19 Fund, the Basic Needs Coalition, #Students2Stay, the various fundraisers for BLM (most notably Stanford AKA’s) and SWR’s Service Worker Fund. We also saw organizers secure major wins; such as removing police from 5150s, stabilizing funding for community centers, removing course fees, securing better mental health resources for all, all this amazing work to ensure that every community member is heard, and valued. Yet, after all these wins, the Stanford community finds itself at a point in time again where everyone feels burnt out, left out, and absolutely unable to figure out what comes next. 

To us – Emily, Michaela, and our lovely chief of staff, Munira Alimire – it’s clear what comes next. It’s time for us to take it back. After these three years, we know everything worthwhile and meaningful at Stanford is done by students, service workers, community staff,  and others in liminal positions at this university. We’ve seen time and time again how the University spends years rejecting community advances on particular goals, only to turn around and claim the wins as their own.  We’ve seen so many people put their well-being, their academic success, and their physical and mental health on the line to make Stanford better. So we know and Stanford knows that real power rests in the hands of the community. We need to turn the tide of IRL-campus complacency and the loss of institutional memory to generate the massive amounts of organizing power our community had and deserves.

We believe that community organizing is not just policy or advocacy work, but rather culture work. To make strides toward our goals, everybody needs to believe that Stanford can change and that Stanford can change now. We want to bring an end to the collective suffering that every member of our community has faced.  We want to build up the collective imagination, the collective pressure, the collective hope that this place can be better 1, 5, 9 years from now.  We want to Take Stanford Back – for the people!

TSD: What gaps do you see between Stanford students and administration, and how do you plan to work with leadership to bridge that divide?

M&E: Stanford is and has always been incredibly decentralized. In a recent conversation we had with Senior Vice Provost of Campus Engagement, Matthew Tiews, he shared with us how this was intentional and how the University, in the late 1800s – early 1900s, wanted to create a community that was autonomous and self-regulated by students and faculty. Now, it’s become clear that this university model isn’t working. It means there are gaps between students and ASSU, ASSU and the Faculty Senate, the FacSen and VPSA, VPSA and Susie, Susie and the Provost, the Provost and the Board of Trustees, the Board of Trustees, and literally everyone. Over the pandemic, the University tried to amend this by creating safety nets, but Stanford’s communication/transparency problems still exist! They’re multiplying it feels  — but as ASSU Exec, we plan to bring back the quarterly Stanford Governance meetings, and we hope to increase their frequency to be bi-quarterly. 

Another issue is that Stanford admin can be a little out of touch with what the most pressing needs of students are. With work like research, data, and interviews, paired with our more intimate 1-on-1s with high-ranking university admins, we hope to center what we can see to be the most important.

The Nominations Commission is the one branch of the ASSU that has not been working well for years. It’s hard to get the full capacity on the commission, it can be difficult to find students to apply, and it can be frustrating both on the end of NomComm and the committee convener to ensure that nominated students will show up consistently. We want to work to finally make NomComm more sustainable and more functional.

Finally, we are looking to host town halls with vice provosts and University administration for student input. Students often feel disconnected from University administration and unheard/unseen. Oftentimes, it can take weeks to get a meeting with administrators at Stanford. Through hosting town halls with the administration, students have direct access to administrators to voice concerns and demands to the administration. 

TSD: What do you think is the biggest challenge of holding this position and how do you plan to deal with it?

M&E: The biggest challenge of holding this position is balancing the work of ASSU Exec while caring for our mental health and wellbeing. What a lot of people don’t know is that Exec is a 25-40 hour/week commitment that entails many meetings with many university stakeholders, attending meetings with students, and being on the ground, front line, when things pop off. We have to be ready to respond and show up for the student body at any given moment. In addition, we are expected to be full-time students and take care of our personal needs. In the past, this has caused many ASSU Execs to have unfulfilled promises and leave the ASSU because of the significant pressure and little time to care for their mental health and wellbeing. To avoid burnout and ensure we are maintaining promises to the student body, we are aiming to use the funding to expand our ASSU Exec cabinet and create positions to delegate work/tasks, and ensure we can create a sustainable work-life balance within the ASSU. 

TSD: How do you plan to engage the Stanford community that’s less involved in the student government activities during your tenure?

M&E: This upcoming year, we are planning to bring student government to Stanford students. We are planning to create a Tik Tok and Instagram reels that provide students with biweekly updates of the work ASSU Exec is doing. Through biweekly newsletters and quarterly town halls, we hope to provide updates on what ASSU Exec is doing. Additionally, we aim to have weekly office hours where students can connect with us to learn more about the work we are doing and receive direct support from us. 

TSD: What superpower would you choose for yourself? How would you apply this superpower if elected to ASSU exec?

M&E: This is such a fun question! We took it up a notch and tied each member of this Exec team to a Marvel superhero. 

Michaela: I’d choose powers similar to Spiderman (Spider-Gwen, anyone?) because Spidey uses his senses to protect and lead his community, while also being an equal member of it. I want people to see us the same way in the ASSU: not as their superiors, but as their friendly neighborhood ASSU executives! 

Emily: I’d have to go with Jean Grey aka Phoenix. (Let’s not even forget about the X-Men storyline ‘Dark Phoenix!!) Not only is she a baddie (like me), but she has telepathy/empathy-connected powers like hers would be so useful because it would allow us to connect + fully understand our community’s needs and thoughts. She’s a soft-hearted/selfless person who also loves to have fun and do the unthinkable for her community. I see myself in Jean Grey. Like the Phoenix aspect, we (Michaela and Moon) have been seeing this great reality-altering, universe-building power blossoming within Emily, ready to be fully tapped into.

Munira: Black Panther! One thing I’ve told all my ASSU sibs is that at Stanford, ‘power is not in the position, but in the person’. Black Panther is the best example of this. He carries himself with wisdom, respect, and compassion; he dearly loves and will fight for his people, and he doesn’t necessarily need or rely on the powers the Black Panther suit/potion gives him. Also, his ability to heal himself and others? Super clutch.

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