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Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.

UNIVERSITY PRESS

Florida Student Association (FSA): How student body presidents make Florida legislators listen

All 12 student body presidents within the Florida State University System serve on the Florida Student Association (FSA) board, an advocacy organization for college students in Florida.
Nine+of+the+12+Florida+university+student+body+presidents+on+the+FSA+Board+of+Directors+in+Washington+D.C.+in+March+2024+%28Photo%2FDalia+Calvillo%2C+LinkedIn%29.
Nine of the 12 Florida university student body presidents on the FSA Board of Directors in Washington D.C. in March 2024 (Photo/Dalia Calvillo, LinkedIn).

Not many college students can say they stood in front of state lawmakers to advocate for or against legislation affecting their peers – but each year, a handful of student government leaders in Florida can.

Specifically, 12 student body presidents from public universities in Florida make up the board of directors of the Florida Student Association (FSA), a non-profit higher education advocacy organization composed of a board of student body presidents from every public university within the State University System (SUS) of Florida, representing over 400,000 Florida college students.

FSA holds monthly meetings where each director on the board discusses issues affecting their respective university, according to Dalia Calvillo, FAU student body president. Then, they speak with state lawmakers and lobby for legislation to alleviate some of the issues at their annual advocacy event, Rally in Tally.

“It’s a trip that is important for us because it’s probably the only time of the year in which students are able to go [to our] capital and advocate on behalf of not just their own university interests, but the entire state,” said Calvillo.

According to Calvillo, approximately 40-50 students involved in Florida university student governments attended the event in January. She brought five others from FAU with her on the trip. During the event, the students were divided into random groups with peers from other schools to discuss legislative priorities and practice their elevator pitches for state lawmakers.

Alexander Sutton, student body president at Florida International University (FIU), feels they worked very hard at Rally in Tally this year.

“Especially for one bill in particular, about student housing, and students at risk of homelessness,” he highlights. “And I’m proud of us for that because it’s an important piece of legislation especially for students facing homelessness.”

Calvillo says FSA is also currently working to encourage state officials to support the reinstallment of funding for textbook stipends as part of the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship program, which the state legislature decided to remove in 2021.

Additionally, the FSA board of directors is also working on increasing student voter turnout through on-campus educational workshops and events, voter registration drives, and social media campaigns as well as collaboration with staff, faculty and community organizations, according to Calvillo.

Jack Hitchcock, FSA chair and student body president of Florida State University, emphasizes the impact of bringing together many student leaders in front of state-level decision makers. He believes legislators take FSA members seriously because of “the nature of our position and who we represent,” noting that each public university serves 600 to roughly 69,000 students.

Jack Hitchcock, Florida State University student body president and FSA chair, speaks at a Jan. 25, 2024, Board of Governors meeting about removing sociology as a general education requirement. (Photo/TheFloridaChannel.org).

As the chair of FSA, Hitchcock sits on the SUS Florida Board of Governors (BOG). The BOG consists of 17 members, 14 of whom are appointed by the Fla. governor and three others who serve on various boards impacting higher education at the faculty or student levels.

During BOG meetings, Hitchcock represents the voice of students across all 12 public universities. On Jan. 24, for example, the international affairs major advocated and voted against a regulation removing a core sociology class from required courses.

“There’s a lot of expertise when you walk in the room, and it’s very humbling when you’re a student,” Hitchcock said about serving on the Board of Governors. “You’re supposed to represent what the students believe. That’s why you’re there. And so with all of these policies that we’re voting on, and we vote on dozens of them every meeting, we got to make sure that we’re representing the student’s interest.”

Higher education in Florida has been a very politicized topic lately, says Sutton, which is why it is so significant for students to have a say.

“Instead of being a little afraid to engage, we should have the courage to go to these legislators and say, ‘Hey, students have an opinion about this. Can we be changing the way this legislation is written to make it a little bit better for our students?’ And my experience has been, regardless of whether they’re the most liberal Democrat or the most conservative Republican, they will always listen, and perhaps they will even be open to at least changing their mind a little bit,” Sutton said. 

Advocating for diverse student populations

When the state legislature introduced SB 266,which defunds diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs at all Florida universities, FSA leaders were able to update the law’s language to exclude student-run organizations, according to Sutton.

“People said that this couldn’t be done and no one would listen to reason. But that wasn’t true. They in fact, listen to reason,” said Sutton, who pointed out that if the language was not changed, student clubs centered around DEI would not be allowed on college campuses.

FSA brings together multiple student body presidents from Florida universities, each with a diverse student body and issues. Every university and its students face different issues, Hitchcock acknowledges, so each student body president serving on the board has something unique to bring to the table.

Ariauna Range, University of West Florida (UWF) student body president, notes that though the school is small, it’s rewarding to know their students’ voices are getting a chance to see the light.

“Just bringing even that UWF small regional perspective and just being in the room, it’s just [an] incredible experience. Overall…it can be really hard sometimes, especially when you feel like you’ve done a lot and your voice and your concerns aren’t being heard, [but] just knowing that you are advocating for the students is a really good feeling,” Range said.

Like many Florida universities, the University of South Florida (USF) is home to many international students, notes Cesar Esmeraldi, FSA public relations officer and USF student body president.

“I believe that being international and knowing about other cultures, being involved with the organizations,” said Esmeraldi, a Brazil native himself. “We have so many students from all around the world here, and I think it is very important for you to understand your constituents.”

Hopes for the future of FSA

Sutton expresses that FSA leaders should not shy away from pushing on tougher issues for fear of not being heard.

“I think FSA can do even more. I think we can have an even more organized Rally in Tally. I think we can make a bigger push on strong issues to our legislators,” he said, referencing the DEI legislation change in 2023.

Calvillo believes that FSA has been underutilized in the past as a tool for college students and universities in general, and she says they hope to expand the organization’s presence outside of Florida.

“[Student body] presidents are the people that represent universities in an external way. I think it’s important to have our voices heard at a federal level and obviously getting that experience and making our schools known in D.C. will be amazing for us,” she said.

According to her recent LinkedIn post, a month after the UP’s interview with Calvillo, FSA leaders traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate on a federal level for mental health resources and financial aid.

Despite the pressure of serving on the FSA board of directors, Range feels extremely blessed to have the opportunity.

“Overall, it can be kind of tough sometimes,” said Range. “It gets a little tough when things don’t necessarily go the way that we want, but just knowing that it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint to change things…It’s really a great experience.”

Elisabeth Gaffney is the Managing Editor for the University Press. For more information on this article or others, you can reach Elisabeth at [email protected] or DM her on Instagram @elisabethgaff.

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About the Contributor
Elisabeth Gaffney
Elisabeth Gaffney, Editor-at-Large
Elisabeth is a senior majoring in multimedia journalism and double minoring in linguistics and sociology. She is a creative, kitten and coffee-loving workaholic with a love for the performing arts and storytelling. She hopes to one day work as a reporter at an established newspaper. In summer 2024, she is interning at MSNBC in New York City.

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