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Reflections of a Former Student Body President: ‘Student Government is a Thankless Job’ Insights
Christopher Everett takes the oath of office is swearing-in ceremony at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.(Photo: Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Reflections of a Former Student Body President: ‘Student Government is a Thankless Job’

July 1, 2024 764

My name is Christopher Everett, and I gladly served as the 2023-24 student body president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – the nation’s first public university. My year of service was challenging, tumultuous, and yet extremely rewarding. Since the end of my term, I have graduated with honors and distinction from my university and am now heading to one of the nation’s top programs in pursuit of my law degree. Yet, amidst these personal triumphs, I find it increasingly important to document and share my reflections from my year of service.

There is a long history of independent, student self-governance at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Beginning in 1901, the first committee of representatives from the sophomore, junior, and senior classes convened in response to hazing and cheating allegations popping up around campus. At the suggestion of the university president, this council became an official University Counsel in 1904 and was tasked with responding to these, and other, violations of the university honor code. Years later, the council met and officially changed its name to the Student Council.

Of course, this majority of this long history of student self-governance was white and geared toward prioritizing white men and white voices. Not until 1972 did the university elect its first Black student body president – Richard Epps. Following his election, racial integration increased at UNC-Chapel Hill, leading to the chartering of the first Black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated, and the first Black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.

Since Epps, a vast array of individuals have held the seat of student body president at my university – including myself. Serving in this highly coveted position was the greatest honor of my life thus far, and I was even more elated to be the third Black student in a row to be elected to this office, a first for UNC-Chapel Hill.

In writing this, I originally began sifting through my thoughts and experience in hopes of answering the following question: Is independent, student self-governance an effective mode of representation for universities and college campuses across the country?

But the more I think about this question and the more I reflect on my experience, I find the answer fairly obvious. Of course, student self-governance is effective. At my university alone, the tradition has been respected, protected, and refined for over 100 years. In my year of service alone, student government was responsible for responding to countless university crises – including the repeal of affirmative action, instances of gun violence and gun brandishing on our campus, the sudden departure of our university’s chancellor, and the sparking of an international conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Before I get on my soapbox and talk about how these issues impacted the lives of students on my campus specifically, allow me to first give you insight into the structure of student government at UNC-Chapel Hill. Unlike many other universities, our student government is broken up into two different constituencies – the Undergraduate Student Government and the Graduate and Professional Student Government. Both constituencies had their own president who worked to lead their branch – the Undergraduate Student Government president and the Graduate and Professional Student Government president. While the two officers were peers and were the two highest-ranking student officials on campus, only one would hold the title of president of a constituency and student body president on any given year. This person would not only lead their branch and the student body as a whole, but they would serve as the sole student representative of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees – an advisory board responsible for making some of the most important university decisions.

Technically speaking, one overarching person led both the undergraduate and graduate constituencies, though each found ways to differentiate themselves from the other. Each constituency has their own branches, their own policy advocacy points, and an unwavering allegiance to serving their portion of the student body. All in all, student governance at UNC-Chapel Hill is messy, complicated – and that’s coming from the person who was once in charge of micromanaging it all.

Now, let’s go back to the question: Is independent student self-governance effective? Yes, without a doubt. Student leaders at UNC-Chapel Hill have been responsible for countless pivotal university decisions in recent years. From the 2022 memorialization of James Lewis Cates, Jr., the UNC student murdered on campus in 1970 in an act of racial violence, to the recent push for new, improved campus recreation facilities on campus, student leaders have been key stakeholders behind university advancements.

But from my perspective, I don’t believe we should be asking whether student government is effective because the answer is obvious. Instead, I pose another question for you, dear reader: Are student governments and their leaders given the appropriate respect and support as they lead campuses across the nation? My answer to that question is a clear no.

There were countless moments throughout my presidency that required an immense amount from me. There were days and weeks when I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, and I failed to find the mental wellness that I was encouraging everyone around me to prioritize.

Unlike many of my predecessors, I didn’t get a smooth introduction to my role. As soon as I took office in April 2023, I was recovering from infectious mononucleosis (come to find out, not taking care of yourself for weeks on end can have some detrimental impacts) and was looking forward to some much-needed rest throughout the summer. But rather than rejuvenating, I was quickly tasked with responding to the repeal of affirmative action in the Students for Fair Admissions cases by the United States’ Supreme Court. At an instant, I was no longer just Christopher Everett; I was the singular voice that students, the press, and the world was looking to for a response to the news.

I vividly recall that day as if it were yesterday. I was newly adjusted in my summer internship and was sitting at my desk when the news broke. Immediately, my phone rang nonstop — from my family, the press, university administrators, and the members of my team who were already crafting a way forward. I released my first official statement that day on the matter, and it was quickly taken up by the press and the concerned members of the student body. Within just a few weeks, I would find myself in Washington, D.C. at the National Summit for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education – an event held by the White House and the U.S. Department of Education in response to the Supreme Court decision. There, I spoke on an international stage about the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion and encouraged my peers across the nation to continue taking a stand in the face of this new uncertainty.

From there, the responsibilities of my role only grew even deeper.

August 28, 2023 – another day that I will never forget. I was sitting in one of my public policy classes in the afternoon, preparing for the rest of the day ahead. As we were preparing to be dismissed from class, the screens in our classroom illuminated with a bright yellow message: ‘Active shooter situation. Shelter in place’ – or something along these lines. As you can expect, the majority of that day is a blur. Once again, my life changed in an instant. No longer was I Christopher Everett, a public policy student just trying to finish his major; I was the student body president, and the one person students were looking to for answers, support, and an assurance that all would be okay.

While most students were frightened and contacting their families (which I certainly did as well), my role required something different of me. Immediately, I began crafting a statement that would be set to be released later that evening. Although even I was unsure of the nature of the situation (though I was getting updates from university leadership, or at least trying to amid the chaos and misinformation being spread – which is another topic entirely), I remained calm, steady, and sat quietly in a corner collecting my thoughts to ensure that students knew that once the dust settled, I was ready and able to support them and advocate for our safety. Once released, my statement was immediately picked up, and I found myself in front of various cameras and in numerous interviews as I reassured the press of the resiliency of students at Carolina. Within a few days, I found myself receiving an outpouring of support from different universities across the nation – universities all too familiar with gun violence events on their campuses.

Later that evening, once I was finally able to return to Christopher Everett, the true nature of the day’s events finally crept in. Adrenaline can only take you so far – I learned that that day. Because once the day was over and I was finally alone in my apartment, I was horrified by what we experienced, fearing that any knock at my door could be a bad actor looking to cause me harm. Thankfully, I had friends who immediately mobilized and took me to the nearest Cook Out to make sure I ate and to give me the space to talk through all that I was feeling.

Within a few days, I found myself receiving an outpouring of support from different universities across the nation – universities all too familiar with gun violence events on their campuses. I was also tasked with honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Zijie Yan, the UNC professor killed in the shooting, at a university-sponsored vigil – one that brought together approximately 5,000 people.

This is the reality for students who work in student government. There are very real crises that occur in today’s world, and we often expect young people to have the appropriate response to every challenge a university may face.

As the student body president, I lived my entire life in a vacuum for an entire year – always thinking about the best course of action to take, the best words to use, and how to appropriately present myself as the sole student representative for a student body of over 31,000 different students. I lived a double life as a full-time student and intern, and as a university administrator.

Now, don’t get me wrong – the job definitely had its perks. I was able to shake hands with some of the world’s greatest leaders (including Vice President Kamala Harris) and found meaning in the ability to positively impact the lives of the students on campus. For the first time in my life, it felt like I truly meant something to people, and I would gladly sacrifice my time, resources, and even myself again if it means I can continue this important work.

But at the root of it, it’s a thankless job. There are people across our campuses who don’t recognize the sacrifices that student leaders make in their roles.

Too often, student government organizations are seen as opportunities to plan parties and play government. But in reality, these students are just as responsible for ensuring that student voices are heard and represented at tables of power within the university. For an entire year, I was the only student in the room where important decisions were being made each day, and I know firsthand just how important the work is that student leaders do each day. At its foundation, the university is a business, and student leaders and their governments are key players in ensuring that the university continues to run smoothly.

This isn’t merely my personal opinion. Justin Patrick, a PhD student and researcher from the University of Toronto, comments on the importance of student governance and the potential consequences of its disenfranchisement in his article, “Student Leadership and Student Government.”

“When students do not have places at education decision-making tables but are rather outsiders looking in, dangerous physical demonstrations, tactics which should be a last resort, may seem to be the only feasible option to effect real political change, since conventional tactics that other education stakeholders can use are not available to them,” Patrick wrote.

In another piece entitled “What student government can teach us about democracy,” Patrick likens student self-governance to an image of democracy on fast-forward, offering his own insight into how student government can provide people with their first real experience with full political citizenship.

“I believe we should study and support student government the same way we study other forms of government. We should study it as real politics rather than merely as a means to learn leadership skills for the future. We should measure voter turnout and other potential indicators for democratic quality in student governments just as we do for other forms of government. Maybe this will teach us things about how to make representative democracy work better. It might even save student government from total collapse,” said Patrick.


I can’t speak for all student governments across the country. But I can say this without doubt: without student leaders standing in the gap at UNC-Chapel Hill, the university would fall. There’s no question of whether independent, student self-governance is effective. Instead, it is my hope that student leaders will be given the appropriate respect and understanding as they occupy these important roles. For the majority of my presidency, I was 21 years old and was suddenly carrying the weight of my world on my shoulders, and the same will be said of countless student leaders that will come after me.

To the student leaders who are taking a stand and serving colleges and universities across this nation, it is my hope that this reflection finds you. From one student leader to the next, you are seen, heard, and valued. There aren’t enough words that will atone for the work and dedication that you willingly give to your roles each day; but here are two as a start – thank you.

Christopher Everett is the social sciences communications intern at Sage. He is an incoming J.D. candidate at Duke University School of Law and a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With a strong passion for the interplay of law, policy, and communications, Christopher seeks to bridge the gap between these fields through insightful communication and analysis.

View all posts by Christopher Everett

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