Democracy in Action

February 3, 2017 | By Tim Pratt

Members of the Delegate Council meet in Annapolis.
Members of the Delegate Council meet in Annapolis.

As students filed into the dining hall at St. John’s College in Annapolis, more than a dozen Johnnies grabbed their lunches and headed to a back room.

Over the next hour, the group in the private dining room discussed club activities, finances and charters. They listened to presentations from fellow Johnnies, heard committee reports and voted on agenda items.

This was democracy in action, and it came in the form of the St. John’s Delegate Council, the main student government body for the Annapolis campus.

Student government plays a prominent role in campus life in Annapolis and Santa Fe, from representing student interests to the faculty and administration to allocating funds to dozens of clubs to approving those clubs’ charters.

“(Student government) is a good way to enable people to do what they want to do,” says Santa Fe senior Richie Berry. “Anyone who wants to do any extracurricular thing, which is something that makes the community a lot richer … we can sort of enable that in a democratic way.”

Several involved in student government in Annapolis and Santa Fe say they were drawn to leadership positions by a desire to make the St. John’s experience as fulfilling as possible for fellow Johnnies. The Annapolis campus, for example, has more than 50 active clubs. Making sure those clubs receive funding is important, says junior Katelin Safford, who serves as polity herald and keeps the student body updated on the work of the Council.

“Clubs are so important on this campus,” Safford says. “They add so much texture to life here. It’s really important to have that texture because the work we do is hard. It’s important to have that outlet.”

While the Annapolis campus has the Delegate Council, the main student government body in Santa Fe is called “Polity”—a term used in Annapolis to describe the St. John’s community as a whole. Regardless of what they’re called, the student governments do many of the same things.

On this particular day, the Delegate Council discussed its budget, money that would be allotted to campus clubs and an upcoming trip for two members to the college’s Board of Visitors and Governors meeting later this month in Santa Fe. They also heard from students looking to start two additional clubs on campus: one for students who want to volunteer at a local animal shelter, another for students who want to take part in endurance sports, specifically the triathlon.

Like any government body, the Delegate Council questioned the students on things like potential costs, membership and logistics. Ultimately the Council approved the funding for the Santa Fe trip and the charters for the two clubs.

“It can be difficult sometimes because we’re just this group of people sitting in a room, and we’re actually in charge of delegating a lot of funds and making a lot of people’s years—determining the success of certain interests they have or how much they can delve into things outside of school,” says Delegate Council Secretary Anne Brong. “It can be very difficult to try to distribute funds fairly, but it’s also necessary.”

Each campus also has a Student Committee on Instruction, which organize extra seminars and discuss what students read with the faculty.

Santa Fe SCI Chairman Cole Rehbein and Vice Chairman Abdullah Mirza are working to get the committee up and running after a few years of dormancy. Rehbein hopes to go into a career in law or politics, so the experience in student government will help him, he says. But he and Mirza also want to make students’ voices heard when it comes to issues with the college program.

“The Student Committee on Instruction looks forward to opening the lines of communication with the faculty,” Rehbein says. “We want to be able to present to them what the student body thinks in an organized way.”

Among other student government groups at St. John’s, the Santa Fe campus has the Johnnie Community Board, which organizes discussions about social life and issues on campus, along with broader social issues. The Annapolis campus, meanwhile, is working to re-establish the Committee on Student Life, which will have a similar goal.

“The role of student government is expanding,” says Annapolis Council Treasurer Ivan Syritsyn, “and it needs future growth and support.”

Sawyer Neale, the Delegate Council chairman in Annapolis, has been interested in politics since 2008, when he was “drawn in” by the campaign of former President Barack Obama. He has since worked with local political organizations and campaigns, and was a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential run in 2016.

Neale’s interest in politics has kept him active at St. John’s, where he has been active in student government since he was a freshman.

“(Student government) is an opportunity to do some good,” he says.