On September 1, Gisselle Cervantes announced her resignation as president of the Student Government Association in a letter to the DePaul community. Following her decision, senior Alyssa Isberto filled Cervantes’s role followed by junior Watfae Zayed, who filled in as vice president. But who are Isberto and Zayed, and what are their plans for the school year?
Hailing from Skokie, Isberto studies economics and Chinese language studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Since high school, Isberto has been a vocal and active person.
Aside from SGA, Isberto is a part of the DePaul Honors program, where she’s worked as an affinity mentor assisting newer Honors students. Additionally, she is vice president of KALAHI, a DePaul Filipino association. She plans to pursue international law in the future to assess issues going on in the Philippines — her family’s native country. “I’m just really involved with what’s going on back home in the Philippines,” she said.
For now, Isberto is grappling with the responsibility of leading the SGA during a time of intense uncertainty and plenty of Zoom calls. Despite the excitement that came with the new title, Isberto found herself more concerned for Cervantes.
“My main concern was not acting as vice president and president, but just genuinely being a friend. It took awhile for me to realize that I was president,” Isberto said.
Even though she understood the possibility of becoming SGA president after personal discussions with Cervantes prior to resignation, she never imagined herself in the actual position.
When she finally came to the realization of her new reality, she felt bouts of overwhelming thoughts and anxiety.
“I feel like I’m still reacting. Time is a weird concept right now, but I’m still reacting as things happen,” she explained.
This posed even more of a challenge to Isberto, since she never imagined herself being leader of student government, especially so abruptly. Rather, she assumed her senior year would end with her title as vice president, trying to help as many students as possible through smaller committees.
Because of her close relationship to Cervantes, Isberto said she intends to continue many of the plans that the two came up with during Spring Quarter of the 2019-20 school year. Some of the plans they discussed at the time included assessing long-term accommodations for sexual assault and harrassment survivors, supporting undocumented students by making DePaul a sanctuary school, and pursuing sustainability efforts on campus by getting DePaul to adopt an official sustainability plan.
While many of these subjects have been talked about on campus, especially a sustainability plan and aiding undocumented students, Isberto emphasized her uncertainty about being able to address those ideas due to COVID-19.
Isberto mentioned a recent concern with professors requiring students to have paper copies of course material while attending class on Zoom, at a time when many students now lack access to printing facilities at DePaul. “A senator brought it up and they addressed it right away and met with the Provost and Faculty Council to make sure they are speaking to deans of colleges and professors working there to make sure they’re not adding any barriers to education, especially during the pandemic,” she said.
However, Isberto has initiatives crafted on her own as well, specifically related to accessibility and inclusion.
“One of the things I’m looking forward to is just advocating for students in a greater capacity, because now Watfae and I can be part of more conversations within the university.”
Isberto plans to utilize many of the options that non-SGA members don’t have, such as sitting as representatives with DePaul’s Board of Trustees and SGA council meetings with the university president.
She specifically wants to ensure that students from marginalized communities are more adequately represented, like undocumented students, which she is very passionate about. “I know things have been rough but we [Isberto and Zayed] want students to know we’re here for them and want to support them as much as we can,” Isberto emphasized.
One of the ways she plans to pursue this goal is through direct communication with students of DePaul, ensuring that there will be SGA cabinet members reaching out to students at fairs or posts around campus and other online outlets. She also plans to incorporate representatives from a diverse array of cultural groups, such as Students for Justice in Palestine, which Zayed is a part of.
“People don’t know when [SGA] meeting times are or when the general body meeting is. So making sure that we’re accessible as possible so that if someone doesn’t want to run for a position but still wants to get involved, they should be able to join without any barriers,” Isberto said.
Isberto emphasized her role as a bridge between students and administration, essentially connecting students to the right people for certain issues.
“It can be harder for administration to really understand what is happening in classrooms,” she said.
“My role, being able to help find student representatives and connect people, I think is really important in order for us to work as a team, because we’re all DePaul,” she said. “Although they’re administrators and we’re students, we’re all within one institution, so we should all be really working together.”
Alongside the president is Vice President Watfae Zayed, a junior neuroscience major who plans on studying nursing after graduation.
Like Isberto, Vice President Zayed was very much involved with leadership activities at DePaul like SJP, United Muslims Moving Ahead and the Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD), as well as being a Chicago Quarter Mentor and a Community Service Scholar. Her position as vice president stems from her passion about the Palestinian community and advocating for them, alongside other DePaul students such as students with disabilities.
Originally the Senator for Commuter Students, Zayed wasn’t expecting to have the option to run for vice president. When she saw the opportunity she was hesitant at first, afraid that she wasn’t as qualified as other members in SGA.
“At meet the candidates and leading up to that, I realized how much I wanted to do and how much needed to be done. At that point I stopped second-guessing myself and started realizing that everyone at SGA would have been a great vice president, but I needed to convince myself that I would have made a good one as well,” she said.
After deciding to run, she was delighted to receive the position and to be able to represent Palestinian students and ensure they get opportunities to speak to DePaul administration.
“DePaul, at the end of the day, is a very diverse community, and it has to be represented as such, too. I’m excited to help both the organizations that we’re a part of and the other cultural organizations at DePaul,” Zayed said.
She believes that through educating both students and administration, she could truly make a difference in the way DePaul treats historically oppressed groups.
“We need someone that’s actually going to listen to Palestinian voices, similar to how we need someone to listen to every minority voice on campus. I just feel like it’s been a while since we’ve had that opportunity for Palestinians to have a seat at the table and talk about their experiences,” she said.
Zayed also spotlighted her mission of accessibility, specifically with CSD. One of her goals has to do with making professors more understanding of accommodations because she feels DePaul severely lacks accessibility..
“I don’t see major changes in this year, but I do see changes in me being able to slowly educate others and having that voice [minority voices] starting to get established in the years to come so it doesn’t just fade,” she said.
Despite the challenges that the pandemic has posed for students and staff at DePaul, both Isberto and Zayed remain confident to get through the academic year in full effect.
“My dedication for DePaul has skyrocketed the past couple of weeks,” Isberto said. “I just want students to know that we are doing our absolute best and although we’re taking some time to transition, we’re still really, really dedicated.”
To get in contact with Isberto and Zayed, connect with them through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. View any updates on the SGA site sga.depaul.edu or follow their Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook with the handle @depaulsga. General body meetings are every Thursday at 6 p.m. CST via Zoom and the link can be found through their social media platforms.
Header image by Yusra Shah