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Tampa governor-lieutenant governor tickets’ platforms put to the test during debate

Tampa’s governor and lieutenant governor candidates took on questions about diversity, food insecurity and textbook costs among other topics in Thursday night’s first debate of election season. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/MICROSOFT TEAMS

Under the virtual spotlight, the tickets for Tampa governor and lieutenant governor had more of a debut than a debate to win over the audience in hopes of securing their seats in Student Government’s executive branch.

The Tampa campus governor and lieutenant governor candidates — Alexis Roberson running alongside Kiara Brooks, and Yelizza’s Mercedes with Elizabeth Noonan — took to Microsoft Teams at 6 p.m. Thursday yo divulge their goals for advocacy, health and everything in between when it comes to Tampa campus students.

The debate was moderated by Leda Alvim and Jorgelina Manna-Rea, the editor in chief and assistant news editor of The Oracle, respectively. Each ticket had 90 seconds to answer every question, ranging from four different categories including advocacy, financial relief, academic and student success, and health and wellness. In the last 15 minutes of the debate, questions were taken from the virtual live audience.

Candidates started off by discussing their overarching goals for their campaigns. Roberson and Brooks talked about having an accurate representation of the diversity of the student body and advocating for them at the Tampa campus while Mercedes and Noonan hope to create a community and unite the students at USF, an idea they repeated throughout the debate.

“When most students come on campus they find their own group and don’t branch out after that,” Mercedes said. “So we want to create a more united USF, even in Tampa.”

After the candidates talked about the issues they hope to address in their campaign, they discussed how they would advocate to the USF administration for the student body.

Roberson and Brooks expanded on their inclusivity initiative named “A Seat at the Table” in which they hope to bring a speaker to talk about everyday experiences such as code switching and microaggressions, and discuss these afterward with students, faculty and staff in a roundtable.

“And when it comes to diversity there’s no way that we can possibly put ourselves in the shoes of others,” Roberson. “So with that, we will use these conversations to allow us to become a more intercultural competent university.”

Issues around the sexual assault allegations that came to light last summer were also covered during the debate.

Mercedes and Noonan — who seek to expand the education around this topic to the entire student body through a partnership with the Corbett Trauma Center or Crisis Center of Tampa Bay — hope students will know how to respond if they ever find themselves in those situations.

“I think more education to students about where it can happen, circumstances and how to better educate and protect oneself as well as what constitutes as sexual assault, and what being a perpetrator is … can … [make students] aware … on how to best prepare [themselves for] certain situations,” Noonan said. “It’s important because it’s our bodies and we should walk around and not have that fear that it’s going to be taken advantage by another person.”

Focusing on support groups and highlighting the stories of Black student survivors is the approach Roberson and Brooks will take to tackle this issue. They want all students to feel equally supported and heard.

“I think it’s very important that we’re focusing specifically on the Black student survivors, because in the summer of 2020, when all of the stories came out, it seemed as if there was a focus on other stories of survivors than that of theirs [Black students], and they felt very hurt as a community,” Roberson said.

The conversation then steered toward financial relief, during which Roberson and Brooks promoted the idea of collaboration with professors and upper administration to offset textbook costs for students.

“An open textbook policy, an open book policy, would mean that students will have access to open copyrighted material,” Brooks said. “With that, it would be free for use, and professors would have to alter their curriculum very slightly. In order to promote these textbooks, we will have to give out incentives to each professor.”

Brooks said they would use small grants to incentivize professors to join the initiative for reduced-cost textbooks.

Mercedes and Noonan also spoke about their ideas to offer financial support for students, where they touched base on how some students lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and may be struggling with food security, textbook costs and paying for housing.

“Helping students regarding this, maybe help them get a deferment or even a scholarship for housing, will be a great help for them,” Mercedes said.

In the realm of academic success, Brooks brought up the idea of making the end-of-semester course evaluations publicly available for all students to help them decide which professors they would like to pick for future semesters. Roberson said this would help students understand how a class might operate before registering for it.

“I think [making course evaluations available to students] would best assist their academic experience in the specified course because they can see specifically what the teacher’s teaching style is and how that best accommodates them and see what truly works for them,” Roberson said. “Especially in this virtual environment I think that’s really important.”

Eager to soothe the preoccupations of some students when registering for classes, the Mercedes-Noonan ticket plans to create a replacement for the current registration system. They plan to work with the IT department to create a tool within OASIS that facilitates class registration that is separate from the one that exists now after Schedule Planner was removed.

“So, with Schedule Planner out of the system we have this new, a lot more complicated way to register for classes, even though it was advertised it would be easier. I’ve tried using it, and it is not the most easy method to use,” Mercedes said. “So pretty much we can just work with the IT department [on] how to come up with some way or try to reach some company that will make things easier for students who register for classes and revamping the matrix. We’ll be having everything in one place.”

One of their biggest priorities, however, lies within advocating for more accessibility across campus as well as online.

They plan on improving closed-captioning tools and resources through Microsoft Teams during live lectures. While the software already exists, Mercedes said their initiative will focus on working alongside IT to make the tools more accessible to students and professors.

“What I hope to create from it is make it easier for the students to actually understand [their live lectures],” Mercedes said. “So [if] Microsoft Teams has a hard time keeping up with what the professor is saying, or if the professor has a big accent, Microsoft Teams struggles to just keep up and actually being able to put everything into words.”

Both tickets expressed that increasing student mental health resources was important following the challenges placed by the pandemic. Roberson and Brooks proposed a mental health tracker to be used at the beginning and end of each week that will give students the opportunity to take stock of their moods, which received positive responses from audience members in the chat through comments and likes. Brooks said that it will be modeled after the Daily COVID-19 Symptom Tracker.

“I think with this mental health tracker, we will provide ways for students to cope and breathe and ensure that they are at one with themselves in prioritizing their overall wellness at the end of the day.”

As a way to tackle the issues around students’ mental health, Mercedes and Noonan said they will plan more social events that would give students the chance to connect and spend time with each other, which is something that Noonan felt was missing this school year.

“I feel like being virtual has created more segregation between students and has let us fall away from the community as a whole because we don’t have any of the events that we used to that have brought all students together,” she said. “I think that if we created events and social environments where everyone could get together and meet as a whole, it would make USF more united.”

Throughout the debate, both tickets weighed on the importance of communicating and collaborating with other governors, the president and vice president, administration and the student body. With their platform based on inclusion and growth, Brooks and Roberson said that working with other people will be a necessity if they want to put any of their initiatives into action.

“I think as governors, and as student body president and vice president, whoever may win that position in the future, we will have to come together and have conversations and reflect about the occurrences at our university and evaluate our student experiences and see what matches up, what aligns, what are the similarities and what can we do as a united Student Government to assist each other,” Roberson said.

Collaborating with administration is not the only teamwork necessary for the candidates; They also need to work well with each other. Each pair seemed confident in their abilities to get the job done together.

Brooks said her and Roberson complement each other, describing herself as an idealistic dreamer and Roberson as a goal-oriented pragmatic individual, creating a balance that allows them to come up with ideas and make them into a reality.

For Noonan, the connection and bond built with Mercedes through their sorority, Sigma Tau Delta, makes her confident in their abilities to make changes together.

While the audience ended up asking only 10 questions, students did inquire about the candidates’ ability to work with administration if they disagreed on an initiative. Both tickets said that they would rather stand up for the needs of the students than yield to the wishes of the administration when faced with controversies.

“If students bring something to us because they believe that it should be changed, and they have valid reasons, and are passionate about something that is important to them, then I will do everything in my power to advocate and get it passed on their behalf even if the administration may not agree,” Noonan said.

The key to getting things done with administration, according to Roberson, is communication, compromise and dedication.

“We are the voice of the students, we represent the students and they are our main priority no matter what,” she said. “If the administration is communicating with us and saying that something is not implemented, or cannot be done in the way that we are suggesting it, we will ask how we can get it implemented and how it can be constructed to ensure it is probable and it is realistic.”

The importance of unity on campus and her desire to bring people together was the overarching theme of Mercedes’ comments during the debate, and her closing marks at the end reflected her passion for unification.

“We are one, together we’re a community of support and resources and with your support, we’ll make a safer, united, and accessible USF,” she said.

Roberson closed by emphasizing her drive for advocacy and representation on the Tampa campus.

“Our students have demonstrated the utmost strength through continuous perseverance and coming together as a community,” she said. “We have become creators of our own destiny and facilitators of our own conversations, as Tampa governor and lieutenant governor, we will ensure students feel celebrated, accommodated for and accurately represented in all aspects of their USF experience.”