USG President Hunter Stecko reflects on lessons learned from 2020

USG+President+Hunter+Stecko+has+had+his+work+cut+out+for+him%2C+and+he+isn%27t+done+yet.

Courtesy of CWRU

USG President Hunter Stecko has had his work cut out for him, and he isn’t done yet.

Shreyas Banerjee, A&E Editor

Some remarks in this interview have been edited for length and clarity

When Hunter Stecko was elected to be the president of Case Western Reserve University’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) on April 18, 2020, his term was set to be one of the most consequential in CWRU history. With the COVID-19 pandemic having cleared out CWRU’s campus just a few weeks prior, his job description had radically shifted, and his role of representing student interests to the administration was more important than ever before. 

Before coming into office, Stecko, as the vice president of the USG Finance Committee, helped set up the Student Activities Fee COVID-19 Emergency Fund with Joey Kass (then chair of the Allocations Committee), coordinating student organizations and creating a resource for students to use in the haphazard transition to an online Zoom-based curriculum. In his campaign, he promised a more transparent USG that focused on communicating with the student body and representing the interests of students to the administration. But of course, most of the real work was managing the many organizations in USG and preparing them for the sudden shift to a socially-distanced campus life.

 

When Stecko had last spoken to The Observer at the beginning of the fall semester, he seemed cautiously optimistic about the prospect of another digital semester. After the pandemic had effectively put a halt to student life in the prior spring semester, Stecko had spent time over the summer preparing for a better transition, giving organizations the resources they needed to succeed even when half of the students weren’t on campus. From utilizing CampusGroups in different ways to preparing a guide on how to effectively lead digital events, the fall semester proved to be quite an experiment in how to change student life in unprecedented ways.

Now with the fall semester behind him, Stecko is reflecting back while looking towards the future. After representing the student voice in the university’s COVID-19 response as part of the Monitoring and Mitigation Committee and working with the university to understand students’ concerns, he remains dedicated to his position as our representative.

“I think my role has been making sure that the student voice doesn’t get lost during this time when not every student is on campus, while at the same time helping shepherd the work of student groups,” Stecko said, adding that the students’ voices are being heard across various areas through USG’s work.

“We’ve performed one of the largest surveys we’ve ever done related to student workload during the pandemic. We actually generated a 17-page report about student workload and student responses to their courses that was presented to the Faculty Senate.” 

USG’s impact is evident in the housing and food departments, with Stecko remarking that they “have worked to expand some of the services that are offered in the dining halls.” While money for student organizations was tight last semester, Stecko promised to “expand the spending opportunities for those sorts of things as we possibly can, including all kinds of student activities and events.” 

Remarking on COVID-19 restrictions, Stecko said his main focus is to make sure the administration understands that “the student interest is to balance safety as well as personal choice as much as possible.” He added, “I was pretty vocal against even the stay-at-home orders that [the administration] had implemented at the beginning of this semester now and back at the end. Even though I understand why they are there, I also expressed my concerns deeply with them.”

“I don’t want to use hyperbole, but it is kind of a recipe for disaster in some ways. Because right exactly the time that people are absolutely sick of being stuck in their rooms all day is precisely the time that they can’t go outside.” Stecko later remarked, “We have a very data-driven student body and we have a very compassionate and empathetic student body … I think that for the most part we did empower people to make decisions of their own accord rather than being dictated to by above, and I think that was honestly critical to the success of last semester.”

While much of this semester will be similar to the last, Stecko is hopeful that brighter times are just ahead, especially with the lessons learned from last semester. Campus life never really came back even with the digital resources available last semester, and Stecko pointed to one issue in particular: Zoom fatigue.

“I think, personally, I underestimated Zoom fatigue,” Stecko said. “I truly did. To be fair, I think we all did. I think literally everyone underestimated how much Zoom fatigue was a real thing. So I think we have to readjust now and not just expect everything to happen in a virtual setting, but find ways to help. Once the weather breaks, we have to get things happening outside, get things happening in person as much as possible.” 

While some clubs have found success experimenting with digital formats, overall event attendance numbers have been down. Stecko added: “Even these creative things that we would like to use as a resource for making sure that people can have some sort of reprieve from studies still happen over Zoom. God help me if I couldn’t tell you how much I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish we didn’t have to be on Zoom all the time.”

One change is recalibrating what students’ money will be spent on. While event spending for the general campus population has gone down over the last semester, clubs still have important social purposes within themselves.

“Usually, a lot of our clubs, at the very least, even if they don’t really do anything else that costs money, they’ll typically have some sort of a bonding event, or a retreat of some sort,” Stecko explained. “And those retreats serve as a very important social purpose. I mean, our clubs exist to fulfill their mission, but they also exist to benefit the people who are in them, from a holistic student point of view.” 

Stecko continued to remark again on the understandable unwillingness of students to go to another Zoom event, then saying: “So you have to be more intentional about these sort of events. So let’s say you want to do, for example, a virtual escape room, which is definitely something that we have seen people attempting, including our own organizations actually, and there are some good services that offer that online. Well, that is a significantly larger expense than 25 people in a room getting pizza.”

Stecko acknowledged that those costs have added up, especially in a semester where finances are already strained, and now the available options for socializing virtually are more expensive than those that were in-person. 

“I think we need to make additional streams of funding available,” Stecko said. “[USG plans on] establishing a fund that gives additional resources to creative events, whether they be in-person or online, that adhere to the COVID-19 guidelines. I know that some of these are going to be more expensive, funding the sorts of non-club-purpose-related, retreat-related activities that would be happening during a normal year that just aren’t happening now because of the pandemic.” 

USG wouldn’t typically fund normal inter-club activities, instead prioritizing larger campus-wide events, but now there is a change in focus. “I think that some of these non-academic activities are important not only in keeping our clubs active and keeping them up, but I think it is also important because at this time, we are starved for interactions with our friends,” Stecko elaborated. “Just putting it simply, many of us, especially those of us who are off campus, haven’t seen our school friends in person for months—for almost a year. So, I think incentivising some of the social events, too, which is usually not something that USG usually does, is something that we are going to have to work into this fund in some way.”

While the Allocations Committee also funds clubs that need money through mechanisms not typically provided by larger umbrella organizations like USG, Stecko was quick to differentiate the two funds, mentioning that the USG-led fund would be geared more towards enabling normal activities that would’ve happened in a regular semester that now require more money to happen safely.

Stecko also seemed optimistic about the prospects for more social interaction this semester compared to last. 

“As the semester rolls on, we are going to be able to go outside, there are going to be more opportunities available to us, we do know that there are more people that are getting vaccinated,” Stecko explained. “My hope is that, as the semester goes on, as the pandemic starts to wane, as the spring comes around, that things are going to get better, rather than last semester, when things seemingly got worse.” 

But of course, the pandemic wasn’t the only thing that riled CWRU last semester. Between a new reckoning on racial justice and an explosive exposé of the university’s rape culture via the @cwru.survivors Instagram account, the social issues confronting CWRU are hugely important to the student body. Following student pressure, the university unveiled the “For a Better CWRU” initiative, forming student-led task forces to report to the administration on the issues facing the community. However, in between the task forces and the cabinet of interim President Scott Cowen is the Executive Board of the initiative, which consists of administration officials, professors and student leaders, including Stecko.

“The co-chairs for all seven committees have been absolutely phenomenal. They’re people who it’s been an absolute pleasure and honor to serve with, to work on this with. They are not necessarily given as much credit as they deserve. They really have done a great job identifying the places where our community can improve and then coming up with very good solutions to those concerns,” Stecko remarked, before continuing to explain the process of how the committee’s proposals would be considered. 

The feedback period of the draft proposals recently ended, with final proposals soon due to the Executive Board, which will then review and eventually vote on those particular proposals to send forward to President Scott Cowen.

“I do think that the administration is very willing to work with us on the proposals that they can accomplish,” Stecko noted. “Some of them, I do think that there are challenges, and that there will be challenges,” adding that while not all proposals may be entirely legal as they are currently written, “that does not mean that we can’t find alternative roads to get the goals accomplished. I think that, as much as can be done, the administration will try to accommodate some of the things. Do I think that they will be reluctant to do some of them? Perhaps. I can’t say with certainty that they’re going to be receptive to everything that we say, but I can say that some of the central asks of the previous proposal have been acted on, and that gives me optimism that the same will be true of these.”

While CWRU has had a historically disengaged campus, Stecko highlighted a recent “historic engagement” with the task forces and the feedback sessions. 

“I think the tides are turning because the issues that we are speaking of are issues that are present and very personal to undergraduates. I think that because of the fact that a lot of the issues that we are identifying are things that actually occur in everyone’s daily lives. I think that that is why the tide is turning, partially, because they know that it is relevant to them, because they’ve lived it.”

Now near the end of his time at CWRU, with monumental changes on the way in the form of incoming President Eric Kaler, Stecko wants the community to live up to its potential.  

“I want us to become a community that supports people in whatever it is that they want to be,” Stecko said. “I want us to become a community that, as much as we possibly can, loves one another, takes care of one another and looks out for one another.”

“I think for as much as we all understand that Case has a reputation of being people’s backup school, not that it’s necessarily earned, that many people in this community do have somebody that they care about very deeply, somebody who they are willing to invest themselves in, who they are very happy when that person succeeds, have found true friendship here. I want that to become the defining aspect of our community more than anything else.”