“It’s become such a big part of who I am, which is a big, sweeping statement to make, but I’ve never had a happier day in my entire life,” he said Friday morning.
Simons ran the Marathon last year, on a whim, to raise money for Wellspring, a small social services center in Hull, Mass. that got a bib last-minute and was looking for a runner. Simons jumped at the opportunity to run Boston and raised $6,500 for the organization. He didn’t start training until after Winter Break—a tight schedule, but he got it done.
“I literally felt like I was the only person running down Boylston, and I didn’t even recognize myself,” he said. “I was screaming at the top of my lungs—26 miles in and I was literally jumping up and down.”
Meredith McCaffrey, next year’s UGBC executive vice president and MCAS ’17, laughed and looked at me: “I personally have no plans to run the Marathon.”
I asked Simons if it’s the best thing he’s done at BC. A second before he was animated, jubilant, visibly nostalgic for the rush of Mile 21 and the finish line, but when I asked him that, he got a little quieter and thought a bit. Um, he said, it’s his best experience as an individual. He didn’t want to be unfair to the other stuff he’s done.
Simons and McCaffrey were one of the teams that got in it after the extension. McCaffrey was going to run with Olivia Hussey, UGBC’s current EVP and MCAS ’17, but Hussey dropped out for personal reasons. So she asked Simons instead.
“It was very clear from the beginning that we had the same vision on everything,” McCaffrey said.
Simons is the current UGBC vice president for student organizations, which means he meets with prospective clubs and helps decide whether they should be referred to the administration’s approval process. McCaffrey is a senator in the Student Assembly, where she has done a lot of work on the free-expression proposal. And yeah, they said, of course they’ve thought about leading UGBC before this year. It was hardly spur-of-the-moment.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t think about the idea of being student-body president,” Simons said. Even people who aren’t in UGBC must think about it, they said. But it’s also a natural byproduct of having been in the organization for a long time, having lots of friends in it, and feeling like they can do the best job of running it.
The position of the president is generally considered the top spot, but the two view themselves as equals. McCaffrey wanted to be EVP because it allows her to run the Student Assembly (SA), which she thinks needs some changes, having spent two years in it. For example, two months ago she helped pass a resolution to reduce the size of the SA from 50 members to 35. She said that in her time in UGBC, the SA has only had 30 to 35 active members.
Wait, some people run and get elected and don’t show up?
“Yeah, essentially,” she said. That says a lot about what they’re up against.
Simons said that in high school, he couldn’t have been less interested in student government.
“I didn’t think that the students had a voice in anything beyond a nominal presence,” he said.
But that changed when he got to BC. He joined the UGBC Leadership Academy (ULA), a program for about 40 freshmen that has a competitive admissions process, and said he fell in love with giving back to the organization and the ability UGBC gave him to make change on campus. He’s stuck with it ever since.
Simons and McCaffrey are exceedingly sure of themselves. They were almost too cool when we talked, chilling in Hillside with breakfast as I tried to wake myself up. They were articulate and candid. Mark Miceli, an associate director in the Office of Student Involvement, called Simons pragmatic. Hussey called them both charismatic. I feel that.
“Russell seems super type-A, but he’s really approachable,” said Kyle McCormick, MCAS ’17, who ran outreach efforts for the campaign and is one of Simons’ roommates. “He’s mega-competent. … He’s one of those people who gets 600 likes on his profile picture.”
Speaking of Facebook, they ran a pretty slick online campaign. One shot on their site’s home page has the whole team hanging out on the Million Dollar Stairs, looking like an album cover for a preppy, up-and-coming folk-rock band.
McCormick’s job as the outreach coordinator was mostly based on social media, so maybe he’s to credit for that. They had a pretty good handle going into it on the networks and friend groups in the junior and senior classes—and besides, he said, the seniors for the most part don’t care—so he and the team tried to pinpoint freshmen and sophomores who they thought had large and diverse networks and could spread the word quickly. McCormick’s ideal model was having supporters in a lot of group chats encouraging other students to vote for Simons and McCaffrey, to change their profile pictures, and to come help out at dorm hours, when candidates campaigned in residence halls.
“It’s not my speed to be so camp counselor-ish, and I had to send all these emails to 300 people, but I wound up loving it,” McCormick said.
According to Hussey, part of Simons’ and McCaffrey’s appeal was that they have big roles in UGBC but also outside it, where McCaffrey, for example, was in the Emerging Leader Program (ELP) as a freshman. McCormick called ELP a “huge untapped network,” which is weird considering that it’s just 50 students. But they know people. Combine that with the freshmen in ULA, another target group, and that’s a lot of underclassman networks.
When I talked to Hussey last week, she said fixing student disillusionment is something UGBC has to be focused on.
“In my three years here nobody has ever said, ‘UGBC is so awesome, we love all the work that you do,’” she said. She paused for a second. “I think that’s also part of the deal that goes into it, that people who do UGBC aren’t doing it for the recognition in the first place.”
Simons thinks about students’ disinterest a lot like Hussey does. They both said the reason turnout was so low was the length of the election season and the number of candidates: it’s always a little more high-stakes when two teams are going at it, rather than six.
They also both acknowledged that there may be more to it. Simons said fixing disinterest is about communication, making sure students know that some of the good things that get done on campus are UGBC initiatives. McCaffrey cited healthy food at late night and the bus to the Chestnut Hill Mall as projects that students don’t give UGBC enough credit for.
“I think many would argue that we’re doing almost too many things on campus,” Simons said. Next year they hope to make clear connections between initiatives to give students a better sense of goals and themes.
Another issue is the potential that, because Simons and McCaffrey come from within UGBC, perception of the organization will continue to be that it is inefficient and insular. Their slick social media might not help them out much on that front.
“Throughout their campaign they were struggling to seem less establishment-ish, just because they were the favorites and they’re polished,” McCormick said.
But Perasso tried to run a campaign, with Rachel Loos, MCAS ’18, that made fun of that establishment vibe and argued that UGBC wastes some of its $328,000 budget, and look what happened: they didn’t make it through the primary. Simons and McCaffrey got almost twice as many votes as the runners-up. It seems like people aren’t anti-UGBC—lately, anyway, they’re over UGBC. They won’t vote against it, but they won’t vote for it, either.
And Simons and McCaffrey see that.
“I don’t think students have much reason to believe the elected leadership at this point,” Simons said. “[Being insiders] doesn’t mean that we’re okay with the way everything’s been done.”
Adam Rosenbloom, co-chair of the Elections Committee (EC) and MCAS ’16, said that it’s generally true that students who are more involved are the ones who vote—hence the coveted ELP/ULA bloc. Maybe they feel more invested in UGBC’s goals. It’s also true that participation decreases as students get older—last year, 1,004 sophomores, 840 juniors, and just 419 seniors voted.
It’s unclear why. Students might get more apathetic over time, Rosenbloom suggested, feeling like UGBC plays a smaller and smaller role in their lives as they get closer to graduation. He said there isn’t much the EC can do to increase interest. After a certain number of emails and a certain number of town hall meetings and debates, people stop showing up.
“It is really difficult to make change, and change on any college campus in general happens slowly,” she said. “You just have to focus on what can you accomplish in one year and also what bigger things you can move the needle on.”
Simons and McCaffrey have to be okay, in other words, with sowing seeds for the long term. In the past, like with this year’s administration led by Hussey and Thomas Napoli, UGBC president and MCAS ’16, some issues have gotten off the ground too fast. One of the biggest focuses for Napoli and Hussey is a comprehensive free-expression policy that would create more avenues for unregistered groups to have a presence on campus—unregistered groups can’t put up flyers or reserve meeting space. It passed through the SA, and then stalled going through the approval process in the Office of the Dean of Students.
“I think [the free-expression policy] was one of those cases where we probably needed to have a lot more dialogue before the policy was put out,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Barb Jones, who oversees the office.
Simons and McCaffrey hope to keep that conversation going, and Jones said she’ll be having breakfast with them every other week next year to talk. They both said that BC Looking Forward, a dinner hosted by UGBC and administrators to discuss student concerns, is a good first step.
But the key is action, Simons said. As UGBC president and EVP, he and McCaffrey will make four presentations next year to a group from the Board of Trustees, though Simons said those meetings have historically led to few concrete changes.
“It’s hard to say what’s gone on after those conversations,” he said. They’d like to meet with University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., who hasn’t met with UGBC in the past year. One of their goals is to improve students’ perception of the administration and try to be a bridge between the two.
McCormick said that on one hand, Simons wants to be progressive and push the University on difficult issues, while on the other hand, his roles on campus make him very well-known to administrators, and he might hesitate to clash with them. Navigating that balancing act will be tricky, but they can do it.
“If someone’s gonna find that middle ground, it’s gonna be them,” McCormick said.
Maybe that experience and confidence are what it’s all about, kind of like running down Comm. Ave. at Mile 21—a couple miles to go before you cross the finish line, with a few goals in mind, a lot of road behind you, and (at least some) students cheering you on.
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor