Meet the candidates for undergraduate student government

The COVID-19 pandemic has made campaigning more difficult, but that has not stopped the election from beginning online on March 30.

Candidates for the 2020-2021 student body president and vice president at the University of Minnesota.

Candidates for the 2020-2021 student body president and vice president at the University of Minnesota.

by Samantha Hendrickson

The University of Minnesota undergraduate student government election begins online Monday, and candidates are vying for votes on a nearly empty campus.

The four tickets on the Minnesota Student Association ballot are pushing their platforms to the student body via social media and video meetings, encouraging students to vote for the next round of MSA leadership even during uncertain times. 

Presidential candidate Gurtaran Johal and vice presidential candidate Arshia Hussain 

Long-standing MSA members Gurtaran Johal and Arshia Hussain are hoping to amplify student voices.

Johal, the current MSA Sexual Assault Task Force chair, and Hussain, the current Non-Citizen and Immigrant Task Force Chair, are campaigning to give a voice to silenced communities on campus, increasing representation and strengthening MSA’s relationship with the student body. 

“We want to ensure that we are creating relationships, because we’re here to represent students, and if we’re not actually creating a community-centered approach, then we’re not doing advocacy,” Johal said. 

Some of the advocacy work Johal and Hussain are planning to do includes advocating for culturally relevant mental health providers, ratifying the free speech and expression policy on campus and making textbooks more affordable. 

Presidential candidate Juan Mantilla and vice presidential candidate Sikai Yang 

Third-year students Juan Mantilla and Sikai Yang, who have been friends for nearly 11 years, are also vying for the MSA leadership positions. Mantilla said the role of the student body president is to empower students.

“As a student body, we don’t have that one person that we look to,” Mantilla said.  “You really do need someone that steps into that role and channels that collective power for the betterment of the community as a whole. I’m not talking about being the sole voice, but about somebody facilitating growth of the campus community as a whole.” 

Mantilla is currently the MSA vice president’s chief of staff, while Yang is not a member of MSA. 

Mantilla and Yang said projects they hope to implement if elected include addressing housing affordability and making MSA advocacy more accessible across the University system. They also plan to create a chief inclusion officer position to help with accurate representation of the student body.

Presidential candidate Amy Ma and vice presidential candidate Becca Cowin 

Candidates Amy Ma and Rebecca Cowin emphasized the need to look outside of MSA to properly advocate for the student body. Ma is currently the Student Senate chair and Cowin is the local government and advocacy coordinator of MSA’s Government and Legislative Affairs.

They stressed the importance of seeing what students are concerned with by holding community meetings and gathering data.

“We want to make sure that people throughout campus don’t feel alienated or unwelcome by the organization,” Ma said. “We want to make sure that they’re able to come in here, that they’re able to understand our advocacy without being part of the organization.” 

Ma and Cowin are passionate about issues concerning college affordability, from tuition and eliminating late service fees, to food insecurity and creating an on-campus grocery store. They also said they hope to increase the campus minimum wage. 

Presidential candidate Zachary Riffle and vice presidential candidate Parthsarthi Mishra 

Second-year Zachary Riffle is running for president of MSA alongside second-year Parthsarthi Mishra. Both are Carlson School of Management students who have no past involvement with MSA. 

“I ran for student body president not out of ambition for a title or a stipend,” Riffle said. “[Mishra] and I saw this as an incredible opportunity to no longer sit back and witness a toxic internal culture but instead to embrace our vision of a motivated student body and better represent their voices.” 

Last semester, MSA called a closed-session meeting in order to discuss leadership issues and a “toxic internal culture.” 

Despite little-to-no student government experience, the pair has a team of over 57 people helping them campaign. Their platform highlights projects like improving MSA culture, continuing advocacy work with zero-waste events, a new clean energy initiative and starting an MSA podcast. 

COVID-19 concerns 

As the University continues to shut down more and more of their operations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the candidates for president and vice president are stressing that choosing student leadership is more important now than ever. 

As the campus empties, some of the candidates themselves have moved back home for the foreseeable future.

Though some candidates expressed concern over being able to connect to the communities they hope to advocate for, they also said they’re hopeful that students will show up to vote. 

“When it comes to the coronavirus, it’s very clear that this is leading to a lot of issues in terms of food insecurity, of housing options, of mental health needs…” Johal said when asked why students should still care about voting. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated some candidates’ information. Zachary Riffle and Parthsarthi Mishra are second-year students and Juan Mantilla is the vice president’s chief of staff.