The Bryan Center Plaza was strangely calm after a midday rain shower on Wednesday afternoon. Amid the typical bustle, Duke Student Government President Lana Gesinsky, a senior, sat at one of the few dry tables to make good on her campaign promise of creating Pulse Checks, a way for students to informally ask questions in-person and give feedback to DSG.
“DUKE STUDENT GOVT: Come chat!!!” read a hand-lettered poster Gesinsky propped up on a chair. She was still waiting to receive a professional “fancy pole-mounted” sign, she said, but in the meantime, the poster seemed to work just fine.
Restructuring funding distribution
Just a few minutes after Gesinsky sat down, juniors Will Henning and Heera Rajavel strolled up to the Pulse Check table. After hushed discussion between the pair, Henning asked Gesinsky how the Student Organization Finance Committee restructured itself over the summer.
Gesinsky started by qualifying that she didn’t “know the ins and outs of SOFC,” then launched into a detailed answer that gave away just how much she did know. This year, things have been getting “funky” with non-Greek selective living groups’ and selective clubs’ funding, prompting the need for restructuring.
Rajavel asked a follow-up question that seemed to explain the direction of Henning’s initial inquiry.
“I think SOFC doesn’t give enough money to clubs who actually need money, and gives too much to clubs that don’t need any money,” she started. She claimed that Duke Mock Trial, which she is the treasurer of, has a $4000 deficit, despite consistently ranking in the top five at national competitions.
“That’s why we need restructuring,” Gesinsky responded. SOFC’s budget comes from the $144.65 activity fee that every student has to pay as part of their tuition, she said, but many students aren’t seeing the benefit of the money they spent because so much of SOFC’s funding goes to selective groups.
“We’re thinking of creating a separate competitive fund category,” Gesinsky continued. “So if you're a nationally ranked group, you would be getting more money.”
Making DSG more accessible
Between constituents, Gesinsky explained why she decided to start holding Pulse Checks. In past years, students didn’t know DSG presidents’ names, she said. If a student wanted to meet, they would have to book an appointment.
“But they would have never booked an appointment to ask their question,” she said. “If I'm just sitting here, then they might. So that's my hope—just to be more accessible.”
“Duke Student Government is not transparent with the students nor interacting with students as much as it should,” read the post. “I mean it when I say I want to hear from you.”
DSG has also created a new phone number, (336) 901-0025, that students can use to contact the executive team.
Gesinsky added that as part of this effort, DSG would explicitly invite student groups to weekly Senate meetings, which have historically been open to the public but scarcely attended.
As we chatted, some of Gesinsky's friends walked by. One asked if she wanted to get dinner together. Gesinsky responded she had a Senate meeting to attend.
“Wednesdays, Senate, right, I know the rules at this point,” her friend joked and departed.
On-campus social life
The next question was posed by senior Bella Pansini, wondering what Gesinsky was doing to revitalize on-campus social life, another key pillar of Gesinsky’s platform.
“Kegs on the quad, tailgates and such, what else is coming?” Pansini asked, rapid-fire. “And isn’t there a Durham noise ordinance?”
Gesinsky answered the question in reverse order, first explaining that Durham’s 11 p.m. noise ordinance pose a challenge to hosting on-campus social events, which have to stop by that time. But most off-campus events continue well beyond midnight.
She pointed out that off-campus events were not only exclusive but also unsafe—they take place far away from campus where cell service is spotty and transportation is expensive.
“I think ideally, if you go to a top college in the U.S., if you want to be able to have fun on campus, you should be able to,” Gesinsky said. “I love painting tote bags, but it's either, you're painting a tote bag at 8 p.m., or it's assumed that you're going off campus and driving 40 minutes away to have fun. There isn't really a happy middle ground.”
She pointed to the senior class council’s welcome party, the football tailgate and The Loop now allowing students to be bartenders with the hope that newly-relaxed alcohol rules could help create that middle ground.
As Gesinsky’s conversation with Pansini shifted from bartending to late-night hangouts to Pitchforks, Duke Dining’s recent price increase came up.
Gesinsky explained that while DSG can push for increased food plans, they have no control over prices since campus restaurants are independent vendors. Pansini said that increasing food plans would relieve some of the burden, since financial aid is fixed.
Like most things at Duke, Gesinsky’s Pulse Check gained traction as it spread through Duke’s closely connected social web. Pansini’s friend Katie Lam, a sophomore, noticed her at the table, and when Lam walked over, she brought another friend with her.
Gesinsky walked Lam through the process of forming a new club before turning to Lam’s companion, sophomore Sarah Schwartz, who directed the conversation right back to dining prices.
“I was here during O-week and I went to get Sprout, and it cost $17.38. I live off campus, and I was like I can never buy on campus every day. I now have a lunchbox,” Gesinsky quipped. “We have been able to advocate for changing the dining plan amount. So it's on my list of things to bring up now.”
Just after Lam and Schwartz departed, a tour group came by. One tour guide stopped, pointed to Gesinsky and asked the crowd, “Y’all want to say ‘hi’ to our student body president?”
Parents turned their heads to look at Gesinsky and some seemed to contemplate taking a picture. Gesinsky laughed and waved.
The final question of the hour came from senior Noam Cherki, who asked what Gesinsky thought DSG’s role was between administrators and students when “the administration does something that really angers students.” He also asked about DSG’s role in SOFC approving controversial speakers or clubs.
“The point of DSG is to advocate for the students,” Gesinsky started. “That's something I remind myself of all the time, it's so easy to think about what do I want or what do my friends want, but you really have to broaden your perspective.”
With the recent flurry of policy changes on SLG recruitment, for instance, Gesinsky said DSG had to walk the line between being respectful and “express[ing], extreme frustration to administration ... [We] are now working to try to find a solution that we think benefits the students the most.”
Gesinsky added that DSG’s job was to check the political and cultural angles of speakers and organizations that SOFC approved, to make sure they “fit into the overall campus.”
Right before the hour wrapped up, a passing student scanned Gesinsky’s sign. As she walked away, she shouted, “Go student government!”
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Anisha Reddy is a Trinity junior and a senior editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.