By Brianna Williams, Assistant News Editor—
On Saturday, Feb. 2, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Student Government Association held the first statewide higher education roundtable conference in the UC Tennessee Room.
UTC’s current SGA president JJ Lewis had the idea for the Tennessee roundtable event from the beginning of the year and continually pursued it until it came together, former student representative of the UT System Board of Trustees Rachel Smith said.
The schools in attendance included the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, University of Tennessee at Martin, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Maryville College, Tennessee State University, Bethel University, Carson-Newman University, The University of the South, and East Tennessee State University.
The conference was the first entirely student-led higher education conference including both public and private schools.
According to Smith, this student-lead conference was important to gain more student influence.
“A lot of times, student voices aren’t heard in those conversations, and you know, we have a different perspective,” Smith said in regards to a typical Board of Trustees meeting. “We are on these campuses, we are here everyday… this gives a fresh perspective of what the issues are going on with the student body across the state of Tennessee right now.”
During her speech at the conference, Smith discussed a wide range of hot button issues, including Campus Carry, alcohol on campus, inclement weather policies, drug addiction on campus, and the importance of SGA familiarizing themselves with leaders making Tennessee legislative policies about higher education.
“You all know that most of our rules and regulation are set mostly by the Tennessee Legislature,” Smith said. “So I just think that it’s really important for us as college students and student leaders to familiarize ourselves with leaders that are making these policies.”
Throughout Smith’s speech, SGA leaders from other Tennessee campuses spoke up about how the mentioned issues impacted each of their schools, and later in the evening they went into further discussions regarding the topics she brought up in her speech.
Before the SGA members broke for a provided lunch, surprise visitor, Tennessee senator, and UTC graduate Todd Gardenhire had a short speech and question and answer session.
Earlier in the day, director of civic engagement David Steele and vice chancellor of enrollment management, student success and student affairs Dr. Yancy Freeman both spoke after a light breakfast was provided.
Concluding her speech, Smith stressed the importance of their relationships and power as student leaders.
“This is a really rare occurrence that we have locally governed institutions, UT System schools, and private institutions in the state of Tennessee convened in one spot, and I don’t want you all to underestimate yourselves,” Smith said. “As student leaders, we have voices, we have power, we just have to figure out how to use that power and advocate for our students.”