Making Waves: Students changing campus culture, changing the world
The grim reality of gun violence became all too real for Elyse Aviña when she found herself on the business end of a handgun. In the heat of the moment, a family member held her and several others at gunpoint, threatening to end their lives over an argument.
“Fortunately nothing happened aside from property damage, but it was scary to think that I almost became another statistic,” said Aviña, a rhetoric and writing senior. Afterwards, I had a better understanding of how that fear never leaves you—and I know I’m not the only one at UT who’s experiencing this anxiety.”
Now that House Bill 11, known as campus carry, has gone into effect, she feels uncertain about her surroundings. Given the campus-wide outcry against the new law, she knows she’s not alone.
“We shouldn’t have to worry about someone carrying a loaded gun that could accidentally discharge,” Aviña says. “We shouldn’t have to worry about someone pulling out a gun to intimidate someone at a party. This campus is a place where we should all feel safe, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.”
Last April she co-founded Students Against Campus Carry to motivate more of her fellow Longhorns to fight against the controversial law. Inspired by Gun Free UT, a protest group led by professors and graduate students, she and her co-founder Ana López noticed there was something missing from the movement.
“I wanted to help Gun Free UT as much as I could because their arguments were very compelling,” she says. “They didn’t have much of an undergraduate voice, so I wanted to bring in more students who felt left out of the decision-making process.”
Though the group is only in its beginning stages, she is already building a network of anti-campus carry groups, including Moms Demand Action and Texas Gun Sense. Aviña and López were also invited to the White House last October to participate in a conference about gun control advocacy on college campuses.
“We’re just laying the groundwork for now, but eventually we want to see this group as a lobbying power,” she says. “In the meantime, we’re working with other groups in the community to get advice and a sense of how we can structure ourselves.”
As Aviña and López continue to build upon their group, they’re reaching out to students at campus events. Most recently they partnered with another likeminded group that takes a rather clever approach to “fighting absurdity with absurdity.”
“We combined forces with Cocks Not Glocks at the big rally last August,”she says. “I really like their message, and it resonates with the students. However our group focuses more on gun-prevention legislation.”
As Aviña wraps up her senior year, she’s building a coalition to stop the permit-less carry bill from moving through the 2017 legislative session. She’s also working toward connecting with marginalized student groups that are disproportionally affected by gun violence.
“I want to create an atmosphere on campus that rejects the normalization of guns everywhere in our society especially on our campus,” Aviña adds. “We’re not trying to abolish the Second Amendment. We’re trying to get on the same page about prevention and gun safety practices.”
Adit Bior is like a whirlwind. When she’s not in class, she’s planning social media campaigns, meeting with college deans or building up a campus-wide Black Lives Matter Initiative. During her “downtime” she’s cheering the Longhorns at sporting events with her fellow Texas Sweethearts.
Although her jam-packed days can be exhausting, the work is well worth the effort, she says, because it all leads to one important goal: making the world a better place. Not just for herself, but for her mother who sacrificed so much to bring her family to safety.
“My parents were both refugees,” says Bior, a philosophy and government senior. “We came here from South Sudan when I was two months old. My mom has gone through unimaginable hardship, yet she has had such a positive outlook on life.
When she assumed her new role as administrative director in Student Government last May, she focused her efforts on making the university a more welcoming, inclusive
place for all students. This involves a lot of boots-on-the-ground meetings with deans, student groups and various units and offices across campus. She also meets with students on the Campus Climate Advisory Board to share updates on campus-wide diversity and inclusion measures, and to explore areas that could use improvement.
“The best way to make things happen is to meet with people and learn about how they’re diversifying the campus, then see how we can help,” she says. “This is a great learning opportunity because a lot of students don’t know the amount of work that’s being done in departments across the campus.”
One area that could use some work, she notes, is diverse student recruitment. Though several programs within the DDCE, such as UT Outreach, are making advancements in campus diversity, she says the university could bring in more students of color by providing better scholarships.
“Black students tend to get a lot of offers from HBCUs with generous scholarships,”she says. “UT needs to work on providing minority students with more resources and also help them while they’re in high school.”
Her best piece of advice for future Longhorns: Get in involved in campus life and make the university your own.
“My two big pieces of advice: Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Bior adds. “The sooner you ask, the sooner you’ll fix the problem. And don’t be afraid to fail. What separates Longhorns from the rest is that we know how to fail well. We know how to get back up and persevere.”
At the start of Kevin Helgren’s campaign for student body president, he and vice president Binna Kim invited students to share their story. Diagnosed in the sixth grade with Tourette Syndrome, Helgren can relate to many of his peers who feel marginalized and alone.
The SG candidates turned to social media to get the storytelling movement started, encouraging students to frame their profile photos with a specially branded “Share Your Story” template and post a personal essay. Though the project was a part of their campaign, Helgren and Kim considered it to be more of a campus-wide cultural shift. With
several committees of web savvy students, they successfully reached out to thousands of participants who candidly shared their stories online.
“We wanted to create a space where students can feel comfortable, to be themselves and share their experiences with their peers,” says Helgren, a neuroscience senior.
Now as student body president, Helgren is continuing the “Share Your Story” events on campus, inviting students to go offline and connect with one another.
“People fail to acknowledge just how far an in-person conversation will get you,” Helgren adds. “A meaningful conversation hinges upon getting these people together in the same room. Don’t just communicate via email or social media. Get together in the same space and really listen to each other.”
He knows from experience the power of storytelling. That’s why he is willing to talk openly about what it was like growing up with a neurological disorder that causes motor and
vocal tics. With a focus on mental health, he aims to increase awareness about disability resources and empower more people to become advocates.
Another top priority is campus safety, an issue that came into the forefront after the tragic murder of Haruka Weiser, a theater and dance freshman. Student Government partnered with Parking and Transportation Services to create SURE Walk, which offers volunteer companionship for students walking home from campus. Helgren’s team is also working on a safety map highlighting well-lit places on campus.
“We’re making tremendous progress with SURE Walk,” Helgren says. “We’re now offering cart and vehicle services and ‘trailblazers’ to get people to off-site locations. We’re creating a culture in which Longhorns take care of each other. Asking someone to walk with you isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of companionship. That’s our message.”
Although he has no aspirations to become a politician, he wants to devote his career to making a positive change. After graduation, he plans to get some professional work experience in the consulting world and later go on to graduate school to pursue a career in higher education.
“I’m not a politician and I don’t want to be a politician,” says Helgren, who recently accepted a consulting job for Accenture in Chicago. This—me being the student body president—is an anomaly in itself. My dream job is to work in a dean of students office or to maybe even be a university president one day. This is where I’m meant to be. This is my calling.”
Every spring, the campus community can look forward to that one day of the year when the Forty Acres is abundant with beautiful white roses. They’re dangling from backpacks, tucked into bicycle baskets and perched upon desks in classrooms and offices.
Each of the 10,000 carefully de-thorned roses symbolizes one life that was lost in the Holocaust. Organized by the student-led White Rose Society, the annual event is meant to spread awareness of genocide and commemorate those who suffered from the atrocities of World War II.
“When people see these roses, I hope they take a step back and realize that a horrible thing happened, and that genocide is still happening,” says Leah Kashar, a sophomore majoring in English. “I want them to look at these global issues from a more humanitarian perspective rather than something they see on the news that seems so far away and irrelevant to their lives.”
When Kashar joined a Jewish sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, she started to explore her family heritage. As she learned more about her ancestors and the horrors they faced during World War II, she became more invested in helping others who are displaced by political unrest.
“Joining the sorority opened my eyes to issues I’ve never explored,” Kashar says. “I really began to explore myself and my identity. When I learned about the White Rose Society and what they do for refugees in Austin, I was hooked.”
Without hesitation, she took on the role as president of the society and spearheaded the 10,000 Roses event. She also began volunteering with her fellow society members at an emergency homeless shelter that serves Austin’s refugee community.
“It is so gratifying volunteering at Casa Marianella,” she adds. “These people have incredible stories, and I’ve learned so much just by sitting down with them and hearing about their experiences.”
Every year, the society focuses on a specific cause. Last spring, they decided to bring the Syrian refugee crisis into the forefront. Tied to each rose was a pamphlet detailing the parallels between the crisis in Syria and the Holocaust.
“Each rose represented a person who is not alive as a result of genocide,” Kashar says. “Our goal was to get more people to pay attention to [Governor] Greg Abbott’s actions with refugees in Texas, and this event helped to push the agenda.”
Looking back at her first 10,000 Roses event, Kashar is grateful to be surrounded by so many students who care about humanitarian issues. More than 250 students volunteered to prepare and distribute the roses, and more than 300 people—students, faculty, staff and community members—came to the evening event to listen to Max Glauben speak about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.
“It was amazing to see all these people who I’ve never seen at Hillel,” Kashar recalls. “We can’t let these stories die because we are the last generation to hear them first-hand. We need to keep pushing forward and telling people what happened.”