SGA university-wide president says virtual meetings caused less engagement

Kaelen Thomas is proud of their progress on major issues amid COVID, and he thinks that they can do better at keeping students feel engaged. Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

Kaelen E. Thomas served as the 91st university-wide student body president during the 2020-21 academic year. 

From the COVID-19 pandemic to the presidential election and racial justice movements, the Student Government Association faced many difficulties and challenges in 2020. 

Now, Thomas reflects on the year’s challenges and how they managed to thrive. 

“This past year as SGA President has been the most challenging year, for both myself and within the SGA,” Thomas said. “This year, we had so many competing demands. We had a global pandemic, worldwide response to racial injustice, multiple sexual misconduct cases, high turnover and a sharp decrease in student engagement across the university.”

The pandemic is undoubtedly the primary cause for the drop in student engagement. Many courses are online, activities are virtual and gatherings canceled. 

“Quite frankly, there has never been an administration of SGA which has had to deal with as many compounding issues as the 91st Administration,” Thomas said. “However, we did not shy away from any of the challenges that we faced and have even gone much further than any administration before us.” 

Though they are away from each other, SGA continues to listen to the student body and fulfill their needs. They hold senate meetings every Thursday at 7:15 p.m. 

Nonetheless, meeting online feels very different from meeting in-person. 

“The most challenging aspect to represent the student body virtually has been engagement. While moving virtually has made meetings and events more accessible to the student body, it also presented some additional challenges,” Thomas said. 

Attendance is a big issue with virtual meetings. SGA has held senate Microsoft Teams meetings since summer 2020, but they never received as many attendees as in-person meetings. Thomas said many students might not realize there are virtual senate meetings taking place, so they are easy to miss.

Technology issues also trouble students since some students do not know how to access Microsoft Teams and often have trouble using it. 

On top of all these issues, the student body’s campaign promises still needed to be fulfilled.

Thomas’ job as SGA president consists of various aspects, including meeting with university representatives and managing day-to-day operations for SGA, such as projects and recruitment. 

Thomas is proud to announce that SGA successfully followed through on many of their promises with his leadership, even without seeing each other in-person. 

“Amidst all of the hardships we faced this year, I am most proud of the work we have been able to achieve,” Thomas said. “We have been able to continue to make progress on major issues like restructuring our organization, introducing ranked-choice voting in our elections and transitioning from a university-sponsored student organization to a recognized student organization.”

Despite COVID-19 and related challenges, SGA managed to organize events for students’ convenience. For example, at the Downtown Atlanta campus, SGA partnered with Lyft to provide ride codes for students to rideshare to voting locations during the 2020 Presidential Election. It also organized a socially distanced election-watching party on the General Election Day for students to experience the historical event together. 

There are always some kinds of SGA-organized activities going on. Students can find them easily on the SGA official website and join via the Panther Involvement Network. 

Most students are satisfied with what SGA has done this year. Senior Paul Bourlet said, “The SGA didn’t mess anything up even if this year is so hard, so I think they are doing good.”

However, SGA was more silent in 2020 compared with past years. 

“The SGA has been quiet all year. I have not heard many things about them,” senior Josh Mancin said. 

Unlike in-person meetings, online meetings tend to have less social presence, a sense of unfamiliarity and less motivation to attend. As a result, SGA’s online meetings cause many students to feel less engaged and motivated to participate in meetings, preferring the in-person meetings’ past social interactions.

Thomas maintains that SGA accomplished much this term, but he also said that there are some things that SGA should have done better. He noted that they could have taken more initiative to increase student engagement and involvement.

“We should have done a better job at learning how to let students engage virtually amid the pandemic,” Thomas said. “Regarding the issue that many students missed our senate meetings, I think advertising the meetings more is a good idea so that more students will learn about it and know how to access it.” 

Thomas also noted that SGA plans to survey more students to plan future events and fulfill their needs and expectations.