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Leadership Highlight: University of West Florida’s SGA President Zenani Johnson

Jordan Negron Photography

In an effort to highlight the people who are leading graduate universities  across the nation, we at Watch The Yard reached out to University of West Florida and did an interview with Zenani Johnson the Student Government Association president.

The position of SGA president of a is a highly respected role and there is a special pride that one takes. Johnson, who is majoring in Psychology, is a current senior and a Spring 2019 initiate of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

We interviewed Johnson, and talked to her about her position, goals, future and what it means to hold this type of leadership position in 2020.

Read the full interview below.

What is the biggest thing you’ve learned as an SGA president so far?

As Student Body President, I learned the importance of investing in your team. Ensuring that the members of my organization have what they need to be successful is one of the reasons my term was so effective. I believe that when you invest in your team, they will invest in you and the organization as a whole. Investment can come in many forms- coaching, a shoulder to cry on, sharing a textbook, helping to draft policy and sometime tough love. Whatever it is, we pull together as a team. You are only as strong as your weakest member and I believe that our entire team was strong because we were supportive of one another. Without my team and support system investing in me, I honestly do not know where I would be. It has been a joy to have invested in and served alongside my remarkable team and we have a remarkable year to show for it! 

What made you decide to attend University of West Florida for undergrad? 

When I walked onto the campus of the University of West Florida, I immediately felt a sense of belonging. Each time I toured the beautiful campus, the students were always friendly, and everyone went out of their way to be helpful. After speaking to a few of the professors, I instantly knew that I was not going to be a number. Here, at the University of West Florida, our buildings are known by numbers, and the students are known.

How has University of West Florida molded you into the person you are today?

Since my Freshmen year of college, I have lived by the quote, “take the risk or lose the chance”. Being in a supportive school environment made me feel safe enough to take positive risks. Taking chances enabled me to run for student leadership positions, which ultimately helped me get to where I am today. As the first African-American and female SGA President I am humbled to have left a legacy for young people to follow. As a Board Trustee and member of the Florida Board of Governors, I have been able to work alongside administrative staff, lawmakers and other stakeholders to advocate for my colleagues and advance higher education in the state of Florida. I have learned so much, made great connections, and have grown significantly over the past four years. I consider it an honor to have had the opportunity to sit in these seats, ensuring that Florida remains number one in higher education.

What specific initiatives have you headed up this year and how do you think they will improve the school and surrounding community?

This has been a phenomenal year for our Student Government Association. While we have a very robust agenda, I am most proud of three initiatives that were huge wins for us. These initiatives were the first of their kind on our campus and greatly impacted the lives of our students in a tremendous way. The first initiative was the Swipe-to-Share meal plan program which enables students to donate their leftover meal plan swipes to our school’s food pantry.This program allows our students, who are food insecure, to have access to free hot meals in our cafeteria.

The second initiative included providing free feminine hygiene products on campus to all students. All public student restrooms were stocked with feminine hygiene products at no cost to students. These items were also made available to students in the Argo Food Pantry for students without the means to purchase them.

Finally, we implemented the Food for Fines program, which allows students to donate canned goods to the Argo Food Pantry on campus. With the canned good donation to the food pantry, student parking fees or tickets are decreased or eliminated.

As the Student Representative on the Florida Board of Governors, I have the privilege to represent over 400,000 students in State University System. I used this platform to develop legislation which will aid students facing food and housing insecurities at our state colleges and universities. I have had the opportunity of speaking throughout the nation on the needs of students, while also bringing awareness to student homelessness, mental health, and advocating for increased student aid and protections for TPS and DACA students.

Finally, advocating for public education and sharing the stage, with the iconic Reverend Al Sharpton and Attorney Ben Crump was one of the highlights of my year!

How is your school currently responding to the coronavirus and what is your SGA administration doing to help students?

During this unprecedented time, I could not be prouder to be an Argo. SGA and Administration have been working closely to address students’ needs and guarantee that no student is left behind during this time. We have worked with housing and residence life for student refunds, implemented an opt-in pass or fail system for student grades, ensured emergency laptop rentals for students who may not have access to technology, fundraised and secured emergency funding to help address food insecurity for students during the campus closure. I am also exited to report that we are in the works of rescheduling graduation for the class of Spring 2020, barring any other statewide orders. We could not be more blessed to be part of a school that is still offering online programming and continuing to check in with students to make sure that we finish the semester strong!

These are just a few of the things we have worked through together to ensure that students were supported during this crisis. As new issues arise, we will continue to work diligently to address them.

How is the coronavirus affecting SGA elections for next year? 

Thankfully, the Coronavirus did not impact our student elections. We continued to have senate meetings and conduct our SGA business through technological means. I must admit that there was a learning curve, but due to the hard work and dedication of my team, we made it through.There is a lot more work to be done as we transition this new administration, but we are certainly up to the task. We will continue to conduct business as usual, in a different way, until we get through this pandemic.

What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership means blazing a path for others to follow. Everything we do has the potential to impact generations to come whether negatively or positively. While serving in the capacities of Student Body President, Trustee and Governor I have worked diligently to ensure that the decisions we made would leave a lasting legacy by positively impacting students for years to come. Ensuring that higher education remains affordable, verifying that resources are available and accessible for all, and having those difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations around poverty, lack of access and disenfranchisement, has enabled UWF to offer resources that will continue to impact our student’s success as they matriculate college, earn their degree and make an impact on the world.

It is not enough to just have a seat at the table. It is crucial, now more than ever to lean in and be a real contributor to the conversations being held and an architect of the programs and policies being implemented. The world needs what we, as new and emerging leaders, have to offer. It’s past time for our voices to be heard. This is what leadership means to me.

We now live in a digital world, what do you think schools need to do to represent themselves online in 2020?

The future is now, and technology is an integral part of that future. This is being lived out, right now, during this pandemic. As our universities continue to change just as the times do, it is vital that they portray themselves in best way possible. This also means that schools must market themselves in ways that are inclusive, diverse, dynamic and relevant; using mediums that are innovative and cutting edge.

Colleges and universities must communicate the resources which are available to students. They must commit to showing that they are diverse and inclusive, while simultaneously telling the story of how students are thriving and making an impact in society. People connect to stories or experiences that are similar to theirs. Use this to draw students.

We also need to make sure that the student voice is not drowned out, even if a college is completely online. Regardless of whether we are online or physically in a classroom, keeping students first will continue to make our universities more successful and impactful.

Why do you think Watch The Yard is important to Black students and college culture? 

Watch The Yard shows Black Greek Letter Organizations in a positive light. It highlights the positive impacts we make in our communities and reaffirms our purpose, which is to serve our communities and continue to preserve and uplift the black community to move our people and society forward. Watch The Yard celebrates our culture and allows us to stay connected with each other regardless of our location. Showcasing, celebrating and embracing our uniqueness, our culture, our genius and our commitment to each other, on a broader scale, is more critical now than ever. We need to see more positive images, hear more of the incredible stories of connection and solidarity of US. I’m proud of what you’re doing, and I hope that you continue to provide spaces like this for those of us who need it to draw strength and positivity from.

What do you plan on doing after graduation?

After graduation I will continue to work in the fields of Public Policy and Advocacy. I will maintain the role of advocate for our most vulnerable populations and bring awareness to the growing needs of people, especially the most vulnerable. I will continue to be a speaker for conferences, organizations and schools, because this is what I love. I am scheduled to speak at a higher education conference later this year, discussing how we can continue to make higher education affordable while simultaneously addressing the needs of our students. I will also do a bit of consulting in the areas of education, advocacy and business development. I am extremely excited and eager to get started.

We at Watch The Yard would like to commend Zenani Johnson for her work as the SGA president of University of West Florida.

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