When a close-knit community like the University of Georgia’s is suddenly forced apart, how do you stay connected and continue supporting one another?
That was the question facing Student Government Association (SGA) President Rachel Byers AB ’20 and her fellow executive officers, Melissa Hevener and Nav Singh BS ’20, in the last month of their administration. In mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the postponement of UGA classes for two weeks, followed by a transition to online learning through the end of the summer.
As concerns about distance learning, self-quarantine, and the growing need for digital communication emerged, Byers not only had to navigate the end of her own senior year; she had to find ways to address new needs of the student body.
“There’s a gap that every student faces,” Byers says. “We wanted to bridge those gaps for students, and we saw SGA as a mechanism to do that.”
Byers’ administration promoted accessibility, safety, and inclusivity throughout the year, rolling out initiatives such as spring welcome events, the Professional Clothing Closet, and campus security improvements.
When the coronavirus threatened community health and stirred up uncertainties, Byers partnered with campus organizations such as the UGA Student Food Pantry, University Housing, and Student Care and Outreach to provide resources and assistance to students in need.
“COVID-19 has definitely increased hardships for students,” Byers says. “But our job hasn’t changed, and that is to care for students by meeting them where they’re at and being their advocates.”
Byers and her administration rallied alumni support for the Student Emergency Fund and other scholarship funds to help students impacted by the pandemic. They also prepared informational graphics about COVID-19 symptoms and testing facilities, and they kept the student body informed on university, government, and health responses to the crisis over email, social media, and video calls. Through everything, their message was one of solidarity.
“The reality is you’re not alone in this experience. Everyone’s lives have been uprooted or put on hold,” Byers says. “Checking in on one another may look a little different than it did four months ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stop our efforts to have that community.”
Byers, like many others, had to move back to her parents’ home in Monroe. Her morning-to-midnight schedule changed dramatically as she finished the spring semester online, preparing to enter UGA’s School of Law in the fall. And on April 6, Byers, Hevener, and Singh passed the torch to the newest SGA administration at their virtual inauguration.
“The effects of COVID-19 have been incredibly challenging. But at the same time, I think they’ve created an opportunity to bring people together in a unique way. Through my role in SGA and in conversations with friends, professors, and alumni, I see people rising to the challenge. And at the end of the day, I’m confident in UGA’s ability to care for its students.”