The first day of spring break this March, junior Liv McKinney and three friends were in an Uber in Los Angeles when McKinney’s phone rang. First-year John Markis, Duke Student Government attorney general and a senior news reporter for the Chronicle, was calling to tell her whether she had won this year’s election for DSG president.
“I remember that [the conversation] started out with a lot of small talk,” McKinney said. “I was like, he would not be doing small talk if this was a good phone call.”
When McKinney asked him what his plans for break were, he said that they included congratulating the next president.
“And who would that be?” McKinney asked him.
At last he gave her the news. She had been elected the 2019-20 Duke Student Government president.
“My friends make fun of me because my first words were ‘shut up,’” McKinney said. “And then they knew that it was good news, and then… they started screaming. I was on the phone. The Uber driver almost got in an accident… I wish I’d recorded it. It was so funny.”
'The best decision I ever made'
McKinney’s experience in student government did not begin at Duke.
Observing a disconnect between students and faculty, she became a member of her high school’s student government and served as president. McKinney described her role as mostly involving planning prom and “like one fundraiser.”
“It was still nice to get a say and be able to represent students, even on something like a prom theme,” she said.
Her ultimate inspiration to join DSG, however, came from Jesse Longoria, Pratt ‘06, her Duke interviewer who was DSG president his senior year. His story inspired her to run for senator for equity and outreach as a first-year—an election that she promptly lost.
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McKinney later applied as an at-large senator and joined the services and sustainability committee. But she was not fully confident that she belonged in DSG.
“My hardest decision was probably staying involved after my first year,” she said.
She said that it is difficult to accomplish projects within a year. Her first-year project, reforming the first-year meal plan, only came into fruition in March when the number of food points allotted to first-years increased by more than 200. The president-elect finished her first year discouraged by her lack of accomplishments and questioning whether she deserved a spot in the Senate.
Senior Will Hardee, vice president of her committee at the time, told McKinney to stick with Senate even though her work was incomplete. She did, and she came into her own as a senator her sophomore year.
“By the time my sophomore year was up, I had completed some stronger projects that I was excited about,” she said, including putting wellness products in vending machines.
She then ran and got elected for the 2018-19 vice president of the services and sustainability committee, which has allowed her to continue her project work while overseeing her committee’s work as well. She said that her proudest accomplishment has been the first-year meal plan project.
When the time came to decide whether to run for president, McKinney was once again unsure of herself. The idea of campaigning sounded like “the worst thing ever,” she said.
However, her mind started to change as she reflected on all that she had been able to accomplish. She sought guidance from Smith, the 2018-2019 DSG president.
“[Smith] talked to me about what the role actually entailed,” McKinney said. “And then I was able to take a step back and say ‘I am a good fit for this role. I really don’t want to campaign, but I guess I’ll do it.’ And that was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
'Go for it': McKinney's presidential plans
Now that McKinney has been elected, she has many plans for the year ahead. And it all starts with creating discourse between students and administration.
“I think the overarching goal for all of [my] projects is incorporating more student feedback, and also just bringing more students directly to the conversations,” she said. “That seems to be this common theme between student groups and administrators, that they want more direct contact.”
McKinney acknowledged that students can be frustrated at the slow pace at which change happens at Duke.
Nonetheless, she stressed that this is not always the fault of administration, as administrators must work to find solutions that work for Duke, its faculty and its students.
“I think a lot of students would be surprised about how long the process takes, and how bureaucratic it can get,” she said, “which is unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean change can’t happen.”
McKinney also plans to work with student groups and the Office of Access and Outreach to expand financial resources and reveal “hidden costs” of attending Duke, such as laundry. She also hopes to expand discussion on sexual assault and mental health.
“The most knowledge of Duke resources is given to students during their first week or during O-Week,” she said. “I think we need to find ways to re-orient students throughout their four years here… a conversation about sexual assault should not be a one-hour assembly that [only] touches the surface.”
As she steps into a bigger role at Duke, McKinney has a solid set of role models to guide her. She said that she was inspired by past DSG presidents, especially because the president has been a woman every year she has been at Duke.
McKinney is also grateful for the support of her family back home in Columbus, Ohio.
“My family is not super academic,” she said. “They’re just so proud that I’m even at Duke, so any time I tell them about struggling in class or… focusing on relationships and activities over school work sometimes… my parents are like ‘go for it—you’ll figure it out.’”