Presidential Candidate Profile: Sophie Nguyen

2 September 2021

Meet Sophie Nguyen (she/her), the presidential candidate for Stand Up! Following a huge swing away from Stand Up! at last year’s election, the ticket has made an effort to diversify itself and adapt its campaign strategies to a virtual space. If elected, Nguyen is determined to boost student engagement with the Union, particularly online. 

Farrago sat down with Nguyen to find out more about her presidential campaign and her vision for the Union in 2022.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Farrago: 

What’s the first thing that you intend to do if you get into office this year? 

Nguyen:

First thing I want to do is have a little catch-up-slash-meeting with all the departments. I think it’s good to know what the departments’ goals are for the year. Being president, you don’t have direct policies, per se, you really depend on each of the departments to kind of be doing their own thing. So having a little catch up meeting with the departments is probably the first thing I would want to do.

Farrago:

So it’s more a sort of integrating the departments together rather than having a specific thing that you have a vision of yourself.

Nguyen:

Yeah, I think, being president isn’t necessarily a job for you. You’re not representing yourself, you’re representing UMSU. So I think it’s very important to know what the departments want at the end of the year. And being there and supporting that. 

Farrago:

What are your three main goals for the union in 2022 across the span of the whole year?

Nguyen:

I think one is engaging more students in UMSU. And honestly, it’s been hard with COVID, in terms of having students engaged with the Union and knowing what the Union’s about. In the past, we’ve been really good at having social events as well as activist events that students can kind of engage in. So definitely student engagement. 

The second is fighting the liberalisation of our higher education. I think we’re heading into one of those times where we’re seeing funding cuts, and further attacks on our higher education that make it increasingly difficult for students to go into higher education, or have a good university experience. There’s definitely been a decline in quality, and a lack of support for all teachers. 

And the third is to force the University to have a standalone policy on Safety on Campus. I know this year, they released the draft, and the Women’s Officers have been doing great work in terms of submitting a policy from UMSU. But having a policy that’s centred around victims and survivors is something that the university needs to do.

Farrago:

I want to follow up on one of those points that you identified. In the past five years, the maximum student engagement in elections was under 5% of the student population. 

You’ve identified this as something that you want to work on, how do you foresee this being done? What do you think that you might bring to the table that might be different? 

Nguyen:

I think universalizing UMSU as a concept. Student politics is a very niche field and not many people are aware or understand the ins and outs.

I think creating a place where it’s not only an activist space in which people work to fight for students, but a place where you can go have fun, where you can meet people, where you can engage with the University as a larger space. 

The activities department, for example, is one of the ways you can really draw students in. I think, for example, last year at Summerfest, having Lime Cordiale was amazing. Like, that was insane. And I think reaching out to the broader student base where activism isn’t on the forefront of their minds, is a good way to engage with students, engaging with, like, the real life problems that students have to deal with. For example, last year, WAMnesty was a real issue. And I think that campaign really engaged students with UMSU in terms of its activism side, because it really speaks to what students are struggling with. 

And , a lot of students don’t really have the time to engage in activist spaces or campaigns. So being able to broaden that and be like, okay, what are the core issues that students are facing now?  

Farrago:

So why do you believe that you personally, are qualified to hold the position of President?

Nguyen:

I’m pretty aware that I don’t have the traditional experience of a lot of presidents where they hold a previous Office Bearer position. But I’m running with a ticket that has a lot of history in the union and has a lot of people with institutional knowledge. So I’m very, very lucky to be surrounded by people who I can call up and be like, hey, like you did this in the past? How can I do this better? 

I think I am a person who knows how to prioritise things. I’m really good at communication. And I really enjoy talking to people. And I think at the end of the day being president is talking. It’s knowing what’s going on. It’s knowing how to communicate that to the University. 

And so as much as I don’t have the institutional experience, I definitely am lucky to be surrounded by institutional knowledge. And being someone who’s passionate about student unionism, in general, I think, is a really good start in terms of being able to be President. 

Farrago:

We’ve seen a series of conflicts in the Union, that some have described as toxic, and quite unpleasant at times. Should you be elected president, how do you plan to create a less hostile working environment and create a more unified body?

Nguyen:

Yeah, I think what we’re seeing a lot this year is the exclusion of [people] due political agendas. Pettiness, who knows. It’s frustrating. 

But I think at the end of the day, to make UMSU more unified internally, is understanding that we’re all there to make students’ lives better. At the end of the day, regardless of what [ticket] we’re in, we’re there to work with students and to deliver on results, or at least be transparent about the fact that we’re trying. And so it comes down to being able to communicate with each other and departments respectfully and knowing that at the end of the day, regardless of where we come from, it’s students who we need to put first and that petty individual agendas need to come last.

So, yeah, I think my goal is that there needs to be a lot more communication and transparency about what’s happening within the departments so that we can work better as a union. 

Farrago:

You’ve presented quite an optimistic and positive view of the reasons for people’s engagement in UMSU. But can you say that perhaps there might be some [representatives] that get involved for their own personal gain or to further potential career paths or opportunities for themselves down the line?

Nguyen:

Look, I like to think the best of everyone, but it really comes down to results, comes down to action. And I think what we’re seeing this year is a lack of action from departments, or at least a lack of transparency. There are departments where we don’t know what’s going on, or only have one campaign or initiative they’ve been spearheading the whole year, which isn’t great.

I like to think that everyone goes in wanting to fight for students, but actions speak louder than words, people can go in and not deliver. And that’s where it’s like, ‘so why are you here?’ , if you need a break, take that break. But don’t continue the job and not deliver for students when someone else can do that. Students pay for this.

Farrago:

How are you and your ticket planning to support international students in 2022? What are your plans to help these students who are stuck overseas but are continuing with their education?

Nguyen:

I think there’s a two-prong approach here. There’s the structural problem of border restrictions, COVID-19, and campaigning to bring international students back, because it’s so important for our campus life, and because these students are in a painful place and deserve a university experience. 

And then there’s the student engagement part of it. How can we engage international students who are overseas to feel connected with the university and with the Student Union? So having policies that can connect international students to a university, but also a campaign that fights to bring them back. So we’re addressing the more campus-level education in the classroom issues, but also the structural problems of the borders right;

Farrago:

The second area of concern are international students who are still in Melbourne. There’s been many studies on mental health issues among the student populace, due in part to their inability to see family, often being locked down by themselves. How are you planning to address these issues?

Nguyen:

A lot of it is improving the services that we already have. Our mental health services need to be improved and expanded so that we have counsellors who are multilingual, and understand cultural diversity. We also want to improve the amount of available resources from our Student Union, such as food, groceries, toiletries, all those things that we take for granted. 

I know the Welfare department in previous years have focused on tenancy agreements, at how a landlord can exploit tenants. I know the legal service has been great in terms of dealing with tenancy problems as well. But yeah, it comes down to improving our services, and increasing our communication with domestic and international students who are living domestically.

Farrago:

There’s previously been some history of UMSU and UMSU International operating fairly independently from each other. Do you see a closer relationship with UMSU International in your tenure?

Nguyen:

These two student bodies being very separate on campus, and culturally, isn’t great. And so I feel like next year, it’s really important to work with UMSU International, considering the increased challenges that international students are facing. So, regardless of whether there was a pandemic or not, I think it’s still important to engage with them and to help communicate those issues.

Farrago:

Do you think that this divergence is reflective of the fact that international students don’t necessarily feel represented by UMSU and therefore feel more represented by UMSU International? Or are there other factors?

Nguyen:

Well, I think it comes down to representation. It’s hard, right? Because the University of Melbourne is a very white university.  And so it’s very difficult to have cultural diversity and understanding when it comes to international students. I won’t say that UMSU has been the most representative body for international students. It’s hard, as a person of colour myself, to go into an institution where your representatives are mostly white.

And so I definitely understand why international students would look to UMSU International. But I think it’s better for the student community for us to be able to engage all together and work on projects together.

Farrago:

Assuming that we continue some form of remote learning, do you anticipate that you would continue the WAMnesty campaign under your tenure?

Nguyen:

Definitely. If lockdowns continue, and we’re still in this weird online space, it’s something students need. I know a lot of students are wanting it this semester. But it’s definitely a campaign that has been successful. I mean, our ticket knows how to do it, we won it twice last year.

Farrago:

How do you plan to foster a sense of student community again, which is quite difficult to do in an online space, particularly for those students who are unable to return to campus or get back to Melbourne? 

Nguyen:

I know that our Clubs and Societies candidates are working hard to engage with that. I think it comes down to Clubs and Societies to host events online that are both interactive and inclusive. In general, departments have grappled with how to have online campaigns, and online rallies, and online collectives. So I think UMSU has really gotten used to online spaces. Being able to improve that would help students who are feeling disconnected from university, and making sure that students know that these services are available, and that these clubs exist. 

Farrago:

UMSU has a multifaceted communication strategy in terms of Facebook, the emails that go out, etc. Are there any communication lines that you are planning to try and introduce that UMSU doesn’t currently exploit?

Nguyen:

I think Tik Tok would be a great platform, for one. It’s so easy, the algorithm just makes it really good to connect with students. And I think it’s a lot of fun. I think it would make UMSU less of an institution and more of like a casual body of students.

Farrago:

So would you concur? Would you plan to use more services that are engaged by international students? So for example, WeChat, Weibo or other services like that? 

Nguyen:

I think UMSU should definitely look into it. It would be a good space to explore, especially with students living overseas that don’t have access to mainstream socials that we use in Australia. So definitely not off the table. And something that I actually haven’t thought of. So yeah, it would be a good avenue to explore.

Farrago:

Following 2019, a very successful election for Stand Up, the results were a huge swing away towards Community. What’s changed since then? And why should students vote for you this time?

Nguyen:

A lot of it, in terms of our values, how we feel about student unionism, and what we believe in, is similar. I think it came down to our inability to be flexible to different sorts of campaigning. And we weren’t really prepared for the pandemic and to campaign solely online. Postal ballots definitely made it difficult as well. Getting students to return those ballots was painful. 

But what’s changed is that we know how to use social media, and are a lot more online now. And we’re definitely more engaged with how voting works in terms of campaigning in the online space. So I don’t think it’s so much our values that’s changed. I think it was the circumstances that we weren’t prepared for.

Farrago:

So in this election campaign, so far, there’s been a lot of campaigning, focusing on the negatives of Community’s positions or actions. What are Stand Up’s positive platforms moving forward?

Nguyen:

Yeah, so the start of the campaign has been focusing on what Community hasn’t done. But there are policies that we really want to see next year that we didn’t see this year.

For example, Education Academic really wants to see a push for fee relief for international students. They also want to see the decrease in the late penalty. Education Public still wants to fight cuts against funding and the liberalisation of our university. Women’s will continue to fight for a standalone policy from the University and have a better policy surrounding safety on campus, as well as engaging with women and non-binary people more generally. Activities is planning for policies that will be in-person on campus, when it’s safe and allowed obviously, but they’re really also committed and having events online that we haven’t seen much from the department this year—things like Oktoberfest. There’s so much Welfare. Look, Welfare has been a department that we focused on a lot. I think expanding welfare not only to food and resources, but also to physical health and mental well-being. We want to collaborate with UniMelb sport or other clubs that are focused on physical health, as well as having more student engagement with the Welfare department. 

Farrago:

In the event that we’re going to be online, at least for some of next year, how do you plan to ensure that union activities are going to continue effectively online?

Nguyen:

I think I have the benefit of having had a practice run this year. A lot of events and collectives  have been running on zoom. So it comes back to communication and transparency, being able to know what each department has in terms of its goals and how it’s going to get there, and how that’s going to work on an online space. 

I know the Education Public department this year has been good in terms of being very active in communicating where their collectives are, what campaigns they’re working on and how you can contribute to them. I think a lot of departments need to create not only an activist space, but a social space in their departments so that students can engage in one way or another.

Farrago:

Now, in previous years, there have been reports from some students that Stand Up! had a bit of a culture of being a little bit cliquey, and that they were a bit intimidated by that. How do you plan on fostering a more inclusive and welcoming environment within Stand Up? 

Nguyen:

I think SU, historically, it’s been rather factional, and so that can create a bit of a cliqueyness or exclusivity when we’re elected into the union. So I totally understand that. I think this year, what we’ve aimed for is to diversify our ticket. And that’s what we’ve done. We have people on our ticket that aren’t factional at all, they’ve been involved in student life and are really keen to run for the student union.

Next year, like I said, one of the main goals for me is being able to communicate with other departments and engage departments regardless of what [ticket] they’re from. And that’s how we run a good union. But that comes down to being nice to each other, which sounds lame, but at the end of the day, it’s about respect.  

Farrago:

Stand Up! has quite an association with the Labour party. How do you plan to welcome more students into SU other than those students who are gunning for future seats, or want future labour involvement? 

Nguyen:

Yeah, being involved in student life, just being able to engage with students who aren’t in political clubs, is kind of where we can reach students who have diverse interests and experiences. I think people who make the best student representatives are students who really went through university life and know the struggles. 

And I think SU over the past few years has been quite picky in terms of values, and what they want to do and where they want to go in the Union. I think it’s being able to know what type of student, and this is the hardest part, right? Because you don’t want to be exclusive in student politics. So SU has a vision to diversify our ticket to students who have brought us experiences that aren’t directly related to the Labour Party or other Australian [tickets]. And those students usually bring the best to student unionism. 

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If you missed out on this year’s UMSU Presidential Candidate Debate, check out the recording here

 


One response to “Presidential Candidate Profile: Sophie Nguyen”

  1. […] Up! ran on a more right-wing basis this year than they have in the past. In a Farrago interview, Stand Up! president-elect Sophie Nguyen outlined her approach to UMSU. She argued UMSU departments needed to create “not only activist […]

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