Opinion guest column

Vote Fiona Chen and Yara Komaiha for UA president and vice president

Their institutional knowledge, emphasis on structural issues, and attention to mental health and economic insecurity set them apart

Unlike most other Undergraduate Association president and vice president elections in recent history, both candidates running for UA president have served on the UA officer team. Every day, we experience first-hand their dedication to student advocacy, thoughtfulness to important questions of diversity and equity, and qualities as advisors and leaders in their own right. We are delighted that both of them have chosen to run for UA president this year with their respective running mates, and we look forward to how they both continue as student leaders in the year ahead. These are extraordinary times, and it is especially imperative this year that we elect a ticket who can push effectively for student needs and lay the groundwork for sustainable models of governance and accountability. As the current UA president and vice president, we are delighted to endorse Fiona Chen ’21 and Yara Komaiha ’21, as we believe they are the most qualified and prepared candidates for these positions.

Chen and Komaiha have the most cohesive vision for what MIT should look like and how to implement that change. Their vision for MIT is one in which students hold real power in decision-making processes and have the support systems necessary to voice their opinions. They hope to create this MIT by pushing for structural changes to governance, grassroots organizing and coalition-building, and institutionalizing accountability mechanisms. Their consistent dedication to this vision can be seen in their past work, the process by which they created and solicited input for their platform, and their platform itself. They have served as effective student leaders through essentially every major crisis that MIT has seen in the past three years. To name a few examples, Chen worked with the UA in response to Jeffrey Epstein and COVID-19, with The Tech in response to Saudi Arabia, and with MIT Students Against War (MITSAW) in response to the College of Computing. Komaiha worked with McCormick and the Dormitory Council in response to meal plan changes, mutual selection, and a variety of other controversial housing decisions. 

As the UA Assistant Officer on Policy, Chen has been our main advisor for a variety of issues from MIT’s response to Epstein to our plans to restructure UA committees to be more policy-focused. In particular, she helped us create two UA-GSC joint committees to address principles underlying outside engagement and campus climate surrounding sexual assault. Chen crafted a new system to democratically select the committee members by opening up applications and voting to all students, and she is now co-chair of the Committee on Campus Climate and Policies on Discrimination and Misconduct. In serving as opinion editor of The Tech for almost two years, Chen has developed a deep understanding of the historical context of institutional changes, a sense of what issues matter most to students, an appreciation for the gamut of opinions in the student body, and a commitment to elevating the voices of others. As a founding member of MITSAW in early 2019, Chen co-organized grassroots efforts such as the protest and teach-in AI Can’t Fix This and other teach-ins about MIT’s funding sources and relationship to the military, and has experience in a variety of methods to leverage mechanisms for advocacy from both inside and outside the UA.

As co-president of McCormick Hall for a year and a half, Komaiha has been proactive about facilitating community forums to understand her constituents' opinions and spearhead new initiatives. As a vocal and thoughtful advocate in UA Council and DormCon, she worked directly with administrators and staff on issues such as food insecurity, meal plan prices, and mutual selection. In addition, Komaiha has been elected for the past three years as Class of 2021 secretary. In this role, she has fostered community through planning class events, and has demonstrated her passion for socioeconomic equity by pushing for free classwear for those under financial hardship.

These substantive leadership positions uniquely prepare them with the same skills necessary to be UA president and vice president. They both have a deep understanding of the nuances of student government and the ecosystem of organizations and offices that comprise MIT. Most importantly, they know how to advocate effectively through these different channels.

Their process to create their platform also sets them apart from other candidates, who didn’t take nearly as diligent and democatic of an approach until Chen and Komaiha set a high standard. To create their platform, Chen and Komaiha met for nearly 30 hours with many student groups including Class Awareness Support, and Equality; the Black Women’s Alliance; First Generation Program; Active Minds; MIT Divest; and more. As students push for administrators to include stakeholders in the very beginning of the decision-making process, Chen and Komaiha’s commitment to meeting with as many groups as possible to incorporate their feedback before announcing their platform demonstrates that they are exactly the type of leaders we are asking MIT administrators to be. Their diligence is evident in their platform’s references to the findings and recommendations from different reports and surveys, including the 2016 CASE Survey and the 2019 Enrolled Students Survey. Throughout the campaigning process, they have reached out beyond their social circles and made an effort to have substantive conversations with every potential voter about their platform. As a result, each of their supporters has concrete reasons for voting in them and believing in their vision.

A strength of their platform is their focus on democratizing governance and fighting for justice and equity for marginalized groups. In particular, they propose granting students binding decision-making power, better leveraging internal and external review processes, and creating opportunities for students to meet one another and build grassroots coalitions. This set of proposals correctly addresses the fundamental issues with governance at MIT, namely a lack of transparency and communication, over-centralization of power, and a lack of accountability. Although some students have expressed concern over the feasibility of some initiatives they recommend, we as student leaders believe that their plans are not only feasible but necessary, and that Chen and Komaiha are conscious of the necessity of laying down a longer-term groundwork for coalition building and institutional memory.

Moreover, their platform is the only one to prioritize mental health and economic and food insecurity. Their institutional knowledge and experience in advocating for lower meal plan prices and greater dining hall food quality through UA and DormCon, coupled with their foresight in recognizing how these issues may be exacerbated in a COVID-19 world, sets them apart. Their platform is the only one to identify the roots of these issues and how to address them with inclusive, actionable, multi-year plans. Their platform goes beyond simply acknowledging that certain offices or needs are under-resourced or that existing efforts should be amplified. Their platform provides concrete, detailed proposals and specific ideas on how those initiatives can be funded, advocated for, and implemented. 

This Monday, we will be voting for Chen and Komaiha because of their experience, dedication, consistency, and impressive understanding of deep structural issues. We hope that you will too. 

You can read more about them and their detailed platform at fionayara2020.org.

Mahi Elango ’20 is president of the Undergraduate Association. 

Charlotte Minsky ’20 is vice president of the Undergraduate Association. 

Editor’s note: Fiona Chen resigned as opinion editor of The Tech before starting her position at the UA. Chen has no current affiliation with The Tech.