Amid the many adjustments Binghamton University students have faced this year, the ability to make their voices heard within the SUNY system may be a welcome one.
On Oct. 23, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras announced the formation of the SUNY Student Voices Action Committee, a 27-member group of students from diverse backgrounds who will engage in virtual discussions with and influence decisions made by SUNY officials. The committee seeks to represent students from all facets of the SUNY education system, including students from community colleges, specialized campuses and other types of schools within the system, with one student representative from BU.
The committee is holding monthly virtual meetings this semester, the first took place on Oct. 22 and the next two will take place on Nov. 12 and Dec. 3. Participants in the meetings include members of the student committee as well as members of SUNY administration. Students are encouraged to share their perspectives and any issues they experience in their respective campuses with each meeting having a guiding topic.
John Graham, the newly appointed SUNY Student Advocate, is leading the committee and was in charge of recruiting its student members. Graham described the committee as the product of a student-centered policy focus introduced by the Chancellor.
“The idea belongs to [SUNY] Chancellor, Jim Malatras,” Graham said. “He’s a very thoughtful leader. As soon as he arrived one of the most important things he wanted was to have the system have a student-centric posture, and he’s been our chief advocate in seeing to it that that’s the direction we go in to.”
In the process of assembling members for the committee, Graham said he sought to include students from all backgrounds, especially those who may feel underrepresented within the SUNY system.
“We have a student who is at the [SUNY College of Optometry], this is one of our specialized campuses, and we don’t typically get to hear from those students,” Graham said. “They have a campus of approximately 350 students, but we do get to hear from students at [SUNY College of] Optometry and what their challenges may be and how they are studying.”
BU is represented on the committee by Jacob Eckhaus, vice president for finance in the Student Association (SA) and a senior majoring in accounting. According to Eckhaus, SA president Khaleel James advocated for the University’s representation in the committee following a meeting with SUNY staff.
Eckhaus said the committee had a selective application process. Before he expressed interest in joining, the committee had yet to receive any applicants from BU. Eckhaus described the committee as a uniquely diverse body of students — varied in more than only their educational background.
“We have people on the committee who are from the athletic community, we have people on the committee who are already parents, somebody who’s a mother is on the committee, [she’s] not the typical age of a student, but she’s there as somebody who cares and decided that she’s going to take back her education, so she’s on the committee,” Eckhaus said. “We have somebody who was formerly incarcerated who’s now a student on the committee. So, the goal was reaching every tiny little corner of what SUNY students look like and bringing that onto one committee.”
Eckhaus described the committee’s first meeting as a largely introductory event but noted his appreciation of the collaborative and enthusiastic atmosphere.
“I think it’s a really unique setting, because nobody is really doing it for the resume, which I think is something that is really unique for college,” Eckhaus said. “Everything you do in college is ultimately with the goal of bringing that skillset and those experiences to your future. Everybody on the committee seems very dedicated to the present and what can we do right now to make the lives of SUNY students better.”
According to Graham, students in the introductory meeting often brought up stress as a key issue they were dealing with. Taking notice, Graham intends to make mental health the topic of discussion in the next meeting, which he views as a mutually beneficial discussion.
“Every time a student articulates what he or she is going through, other students are learning,” Graham said. “So we want to create an environment where students are learning among themselves.”
While plans are still being developed, Graham suggests that next year’s Student Voices Action Committee will be made of a new group of students, in order to allow for new voices to be heard.
Julian Lamarti, an undeclared sophomore, expressed his interest in applying for the committee next year.
“I think I would be very interested,” Lamarti said. “I would love to meet other students and hear their stories from their perspectives, especially during these unique times and how [it] looks on their campuses. I’d love to voice my opinion in terms of what we can do to make the SUNY experience better.”
Danyal Shah, a sophomore majoring in biochemistry, also expressed interest, specifically in helping students deal with problems in mental health.
“I’m really interested in mental health and making sure that all students are feeling well so they can learn to the best of their ability,” Shah said. “I like that SUNYs are coming together to tackle this problem that is common to all of them.”
Until then, Eckhaus views his participation within the committee as a personal and important commitment.
“At the end of the day, [BU] is my campus, and my goal is to make sure that [BU] has that voice at the table, whether it be through SUNY [Student Assembly] or this committee,” Eckhaus said.