New Student Government leaders focus on safety, student involvement
President, vice president want to offer self-defense training, educate more students on Narcan
This spring, UND students elected Ella Nelson, a Biology major from Stillwater, Minn., as their new Student Government president. Connor Ferguson, an Information Systems major from Maple Grove, Minn., was elected vice president. The pair of juniors will take the leadership reins from President Faith Wahl and Vice President Morgan Mastrud.
UND Today caught up with Nelson and Ferguson before summer break to ask them about some of their ambitions for next year. What follows is an edited version of what they had to say.
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What issues do you want to bring to the table or accomplish in your new roles as leaders of UND Student Government?
Nelson: We want to work with the University to ensure students have what they need to succeed. UND provides a lot of resources to its students, but we were talking about how many of them don’t know how to use some of those services such as the My UND app. There’s a UND safety app, too, but not many students know about it. We want to make sure students are informed, so they have every resource they need to succeed.
Ferguson: We also want to find ways to link UND students with the Greater Grand Forks community so they can access those networking and career opportunities as they build their professional repertoire before going out into the quote-unquote real world. We’re also really focused on campus safety. For this next year, we’d like to offer some self-defense courses through the UND Student Wellness Center. It could be a spinoff of what the University Police now offer through the Community Violence Intervention Center at UND.
Nelson: We also plan to work with the Opioid Response Network. (The ORN has local consultants in all 50 states and nine territories who respond to local needs by providing free educational resources and training in the prevention, treatment and recovery of opioid use disorders and stimulant use.)
I had been working with former President Faith Wahl and former Vice President Morgan Mastrud on planning an educational event on campus that would help students get access to Narcan. Certified trainers would be there, and students would need to watch a 30-minute video before they could have access.
‘It can be a controversial topic because some people think distributing Narcan is promoting drug use on campus, but we just want to ensure students are as safe as possible.’
Ferguson: Another thing we want to do is work with student organizations to try to increase student involvement across campus.
Nelson: Participation has been down since COVID, so we want to make sure students are getting as involved as possible. I know it can be tough because some people don’t really know where to go when they want to get involved. We’re looking at forming a task force that will work on increasing student involvement.
Ferguson: The plan is to continue the great work of Wahl and Mastrud’s administration in having our executive team and senators meeting the different student organizations one by one. But the new task force would aim to include individuals from both Greek and non-Greek organizations whose charter would be to come up with ways, strategies and tactics to try to get students involved — what works, what hasn’t worked in the past. Then, we could disseminate that knowledge to students.
Nelson: We’ve heard that some of the Greek chapters on campus feel there’s a divide between them and other student organizations. We want to make sure there’s a bridge between that gap and that both Greek and other organizations are getting involved.
Q. What do you see as some of the biggest concerns or challenges facing students today?
Nelson: I think it sometimes can be a challenge for students to take advantage of the whole college experience in a way that helps them be prepared for what comes next. Again, getting involved is a huge issue on campus because not many students are doing it to the degree they could. Personally, getting involved in student organizations has been super important for me. It’s given me the opportunity to make all sorts of connections, and I know that’s going to be really great when I want to go to dental school in the future. We want to ensure all students have those experiences and are learning those extra skills that will help them in their professional careers.
Ferguson: We’re also looking into creating an undergraduate research portal because we recognize the importance research experience plays in a student’s career outlook. The current way it works is a professor basically reaches out over Blackboard and says, “Hey, these labs need this help.” At least that’s how it works in the College of Engineering & Mines. The process is really decentralized. We hope to centralize it, so it’s really easy for students to figure out what labs are doing what research and how students can get involved.
Nelson: Students see those research opportunities as pretty competitive, too, and I think that steers some of them away from even trying. All students need to have access to those opportunities. They need to know about all the research options out there.
Q. For those students who might know very little about Student Government, what would you like them to know?
Nelson: I would like them to know there are a lot more opportunities in Student Government than they probably realize. And I don’t believe students understand just how much influence Student Government has on campus. We have so many important student voices on campus that could make such a huge impact. They may not know how to make their voice heard, but Student Government very well could be the way.
Student Government also is responsible for bringing some of the most popular events to campus. This year, we had our annual Spring Fever concert — which students love — and that’s all put on by Student Government. Many students probably don’t even know that it’s their Student Government making that happen. And last year, they brought in rapper Fetty Wap. It’s just a fun way to get students out during Finals Week.
Ferguson: We want students to know Student Government is absolutely here for them. Both of us will have office hours, and we intend to be very accessible. We haven’t seen a lot of students reach out to Student Government in the past, but we want to change that.
‘We get that it’s hard sometimes to approach new people, but we’re always happy to hear from students.’
Nelson: And I think a lot of the projects we do in Student Government are kind of behind the scenes, so many students don’t really realize what we do. For instance, we did a project advocating for more Indigenous art on campus. We want students to know Student Government does have a lot of influence and can make big things happen.
Q. Did you start college with any sort of Student Council or other leadership experience? How did your involvement in student organizations and Student Government make your college experience richer?
Nelson: I came into college very shy. I didn’t really put myself out there, and it was an uncomfortable experience for me at first. But then Faith (Wahl) approached me and got me involved. That truly has pushed me out of my comfort zone in the best way possible. It’s definitely increased my professional skills.
My communication skills are much better, and if there is something I want to change, it’s much easier for me now to speak up and share my opinion. That’s especially important when I’m talking on behalf of the students. I’ve grown as a student, a person and an adult, and I’m definitely a much better leader today.
I was involved with Student Council a little bit in high school, but I wasn’t a huge fan. I came from a very big high school, so it was very competitive. I did a lot of student journalism, was an editor and led there with the student newspaper and yearbook. That was my focus. I also played on the tennis team, but my biggest goal coming to college was to get more involved. I wanted to be a part of more organizations so I could get different perspectives and connect with people I might not otherwise have known.
Ferguson: I had some leadership in high school. I did three years as a public forum debater and five years in the Minnesota Youth In Government, but I think I’ve been able to really hone my skills as a member of the North Dakota Student Association. That’s kind of a subset of Student Government, and it’s a statewide student advocacy group that meets once a month at rotating institutions. We draft resolutions in support of students to get action on campus or at the statewide legislative level. I was the director of Policy Advocacy & Research, so I testified on some legislation in Bismarck.
Q. Do you have any plans over the summer as far as preparing yourselves for your new roles?
Nelson: I know we’re both going home for the summer, but we’re lucky that Maple Grove and Stillwater are not very far apart. We’ll have a chance to meet and just chat to make sure we’re as prepared as possible coming into the fall.
Ferguson: As vice president, most of my focus is on the student senators. Ella’s focus is more on directing the projects as they go through. But as far as our focus on increasing student involvement and getting Student Government out there on campus, we talked about trying to get the senators brainstorming ideas during the summer. That way, we can hit the ground running and start putting out bills and resolutions during those first couple of meetings in the fall. The first meeting will be introductions, but I’m hoping we can have some resolutions or bills by the second meeting.
Q. What’s been your most rewarding experience working in Student Government, and how do you plan to parlay that into your personal career goals?
Nelson: I would have to say the most rewarding aspect for me would be the people. Not only is Student Government a really great networking tool, but it’s also helped me meet a lot of influential people who have pushed me farther than I ever could imagine. My high school self wouldn’t believe it. So, honestly, the people have been the most rewarding to me. I have some really great support systems, and again, I wouldn’t be Student Government president without them.
‘I wouldn’t be able to be a voice for students without the people I’ve met.’
All of it is going to really help with my professional skills going into a graduate program such as dental school. As a dentist, you need quality communication and social skills because you’re constantly having one-on-one contact with your patients.
Ferguson: I think one of my biggest takeaways from Student Government is that it has helped me with networking and just approaching people. I wasn’t the most outwardly social person until I came to college. I hope to work for a large company that offers tech consulting services — network security, operating systems, databases, that kind of work.
My experience with Student Government has really helped me feel more comfortable as a communicator, and especially when it involves coming into a new place with new people and feeling confident as a professional. Of course, we know we’re expected to understand the technical stuff with an Information Systems degree, but our professors always stress that the job doesn’t end there. We’re also expected to be able to transfer that knowledge in a way that makes sense to the average person — a person who likely isn’t trained on the technical side. Student Government definitely has helped me become more well-rounded like that.