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Leadership Highlight: Old Dominion University’s SGA President Zaria Gassaway

Photo Credit: @ayshamonett

In an effort to highlight the people who are leading colleges and universities across the nation, we at Watch The Yard reached out to Old Dominion University and did an interview with Zaria Gassaway the 2022-2023 Student Government Association president.

The position of SGA president is a highly respected role and there is a special pride that one takes in being elected by their peers to lead. Gassaway, who is majoring in Psychology and Cybercrime, is from Arlington, Virginia.

We interviewed Zaria Gassaway, and talked to her about her position, goals, future and what it means to hold this type of leadership position in 2022-2023.

Read the full interview below.

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

Every year, there are always opportunities for improving the monarch experience for the next incoming class and current students here at Old Dominion University. However, it is important for our session to prioritize what is most important for our students and the university in its entirety. Our university is back in full effect after being in the pandemic, and that comes with the expectation that college life will go back to what it was before the pandemic. Our session has many amazing ideas that will positively change the energy within Monarch Nation, however, the ideas that are top of the list will leave long-lasting, memorable impressions. Along this journey, I have learned, while everything has importance, if we try to tackle everything at once, nothing will ever get accomplished effectively.

Photo Credit: @ayshamonett

What made you decide to attend Old Dominion University for undergrad?

As a high school student, the idea of college was rarely at the front of my mind. I knew that I was going to continue my education, but I did not know where or in what study. I was a member of United Minority Girls or UMG at Wakefield High School led by Mr. Beitler and Mrs. Maitland at the time. Throughout my time at UMG, I explored many college campuses in Virginia, Old Dominion University being one. When I stepped foot on Old Dominion’s campus, I fell in love instantly. What is a modern campus, with such beautiful scenery was a place I could imagine calling home. While walking around campus, the diversity was endless, which was very important to me as I came from a very diverse city. Old Dominion University offers many different majors and possibilities that were intriguing to me as well as an environment that felt like home which made it even easier to say yes.

How has Old Dominion University molded you into the person you are today?

Old Dominion University prides itself on improving the monarch experience for every student. When I was an incoming freshman, my mindset was to go to class and go back to my room, involvement never crossed my mind. I even took 21 credits worth of summer courses just to get ahead. I soon realized that the lack of involvement made for a boring college experience. In my second year, I applied to be a Campus Ambassador in the Office of Admissions and went on to apply as a Resident Assistant with the Office of Housing and Residence Life. Not only was I able to create new memories and friendships, but I also had connections that pushed me further academically. At the end of my second year, the application for SGA came out. As nervous as I was, the motivation from my peers was so intense I decided to apply. The initiative I took to apply landed me right where I am today. Being as involved as I am now changed my perspective on college life immensely. Old Dominion University faculty and staff are my biggest cheerleaders in each step of my journey. Not once did anyone tell me there was too much on my plate or that I could not handle everything, but instead encouraged me to reach new limits and to always reach out for support when needed. My journey has molded me to be a more confident person. A person who is not afraid of stepping out of her comfort zone to try new things and face new challenges. A person who is not afraid to fail because she knows there are supporters to help her get back up and keep going. A person who grows to be herself, unapologetically.

Photo Credit: @aaronhodnett

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

This year, the 92nd session of SGA at Old Dominion University is focused on helping students ACE their monarch experience by advocating, connecting, and engaging. Now that the world has a sense of normality after the COVID-19 pandemic, students are eager to engage and experience true college life.

As a university that is very diverse, not only in academics but in our population, we are pushing our students to self-advocate. One thing I learned about being a leader on this campus is that one is unable to advocate for others if one cannot advocate for themself first. So whether there is a flaw that can be improved or an idea to enhance unity within our community it starts with advocacy.

Now that classes are back in person, our students can come together more frequently whether that be in the University Webb Center, the Student Recreation Center, the Residence Halls, or at sporting events, we want our students and community to make those formal and informal connections with faculty and support staff. These connections lead to recommendation letters, research and internship opportunities, and ultimately job opportunities. Old Dominion University is an experience-guaranteed school meaning that every single student is guaranteed an internship before graduation with help from our faculty and Career Development Services.

Lastly, as students come together in such places that were previously stated, we encourage our students to engage. Incoming freshman and returning students are highly encouraged to get involved in clubs and organizations. ODU has over 300+ organizations with the ability to create new ones every year, so there is always a home for everyone. Getting involved allows our students to find new hobbies, make new friends and long-lasting memories, and ultimately mold themselves into amazing monarchs. Our engagement doesn’t stop on campus. Old Dominion University is a community-based school and is always finding ways to keep our school and community connected with our Monarchs Give Back initiatives.

Not only will the ACE your Monarch Experience initiative strengthen our students individually, but it will also aid in building a stronger sense of family and community between students and faculty to push our university forward.

How is your SGA administration/school currently working on attending to the mental health of students?

As a university, we push to raise awareness of the many services that we offer to help our students mentally. Old Dominion University’s counseling services offer each student 10 free therapy sessions a semester for students who may need additional support. We also have our ODUcares team that assists our students with any obstacles they face during the year. Our health promotions office does just that, promotes events, provides helpful tips, and shares resources that can help our students who struggle such as the resources above.

The 92nd session of SGA will begin incorporating Thursday Night Meltdowns into the social aspect of college life that focuses on destressing and making students more aware of the services on campus. These meltdowns will raise awareness about ways to combat mental health while also allowing our students to participate in fun events to destress from the week. We understand that balancing school, social life, and all other outside priorities like work and family can be draining, so it is important that we prioritize the mental health of our students.

What does leadership mean to you?

To me, leadership goes a lot further than leading a team or leading a student body in this matter. Leadership is the way you motivate and push others to complete a task. Also, being a leader means you are okay with starting a project or a foundation even if you are not there to see the finished project. As the President of SGA at Old Dominion University, you only serve one year unless you’re re-elected. This year goes by quickly which means this session may not see a finished product, but creating the foundation is equally important.

Leadership is also about serving an entire student body, not just the students you relate with. At a school that has on-campus students, off-campus/online students, military-affiliated students, international students, and traditional and non-traditional students, it is important that you are serving each student in their unique way. This oftentimes requires you to be a follower or an observer to fully understand other students’ perspectives and the needs of their community. Ultimately as a leader, my duty is to advocate for those who may not be in those positions to advocate for themselves.

Photo Credit: @ayshamonett

We now live in a digital world, what do you think schools need to do to represent themselves online in 2022/2023?

As the generational mindset on college has progressed, the marketing and advertising of colleges and universities has to also adjust to serve the current generation. College was once seen as a place to just go and get a degree, and while that is still true today, there are so many different factors that play into deciding where to spend the next four years of your academic journey. Students now are interested in schools that are authentically themselves. Hearing personal stories from ambassadors and other students beyond the academics, or witnessing the daily events in person or through social media really sway the decision for many students. Social media platforms are a great way to promote your university so that perspectives students across the world are able to engage and imagine themselves at your university.

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

On a campus like Old Dominion University, there is a corner for every culture socially. While still being a unified community, these corners make a big campus feel a little smaller. Inside our corner is unity, excellence, and of course greek life. Watch The Yard is a platform that provides a space for black students to express and accept themselves as well as support and encourage black excellence for each other. This is important for our Black students and college culture because it shares the message that while our cultures are unique from others we are equally important and can showcase the achievements that we are proud of.

What do you plan on doing after graduation?

After Graduation, I plan to continue onto graduate school to achieve a master’s degree in higher education.

We at Watch The Yard would like to commend Zaria Gassaway for her work as the SGA president of Old Dominion University.

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