After six years, three University of Minnesota students have the chance to serve on the most powerful governing body at the school.
Drew Coveyou, Abdul Omari and Chris Tastad are all looking to fill the open at-large position on the Board of Regents reserved for a student.
The seat, currently held by Maureen Ramirez, is one of four open positions on the board this semester.
The state Legislature will choose the next four regents in late February. Until then, the students are meeting with legislators and getting plenty of face time at the Capitol.
Of the 12 seats, state law requires at least one member be a student at the time of appointment.
“It forces a seat at the table that would allow a student perspective to be in place,” said Pat Duncanson, chair of the Regent Candidate Advisory Council.
After announcing the vacancies this fall, the RCAC received a large number of student applicants, which Duncanson said was “impressive and relieving.”
Ramirez, who did not reapply for an at-large position, said having a student on the board is important, and she never found it difficult to speak up when she felt it necessary, despite being the youngest person on the board.
“I always felt that my colleagues were grateful to have [a student] perspective,” she said. “It’s nice to have someone on the board who has been in school since there were computers.”
Minneapolis native Abdul Omari is quick to use the word “love” when speaking about the University.
Omari, a third-year doctoral student studying international and comparative development education at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, has a storied history of involvement in University programs.
The self-proclaimed “hometown boy” admitted that in high school he originally didn’t want to come to the University but has since attained two degrees from it and is now seeking a third.
“I wanted to leave state like a lot of minorities do,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got here and started branching out and seeking leadership opportunities that I really fell in love with the place.”
A member of the historically black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, Omari was also involved with the Black Student Union during his time as an undergraduate. As a master’s student, he served as the vice president of Public Affairs Students Association at the Humphrey School and now teaches an undergraduate course called Personal Leadership in the University.
Omari also served as a student representative on the Board of Regents for two years, which he said sparked his interest in applying for the at-large position.
Omari earned his bachelor’s degree in global studies with a minor in African-American and African studies before completing his master’s degree in public policy from the Humphrey School.
He eventually hopes to start his own mentoring organization focused on creating opportunities for minority youths to go into higher education.
“It’s really important to find ways to grab as much of the talent in the state as possible and really find pipelines to grab minority students in the state,” he said. “That’s definitely something [the University] needs to find interesting ways to do.”
Despite his positive view of the University, Omari is critical of it as well, especially when it comes to becoming a diverse institution. The biggest step, he said, is making higher education more affordable.
“Student tuition is always going to be a concern if it’s rising, and I think we need to be very cognizant of that,” he said. “I think that we also need to continue to think about our goals for becoming a diverse institution. That means not just diversifying to diversify.”
A familiar face
When he first came to the University, Chris Tastad’s main focus was going into medicine.
Tastad, who is working toward a master’s degree in biology, said that it wasn’t until later in his undergraduate career that he developed an interest in advocacy. This interest eventually led to founding the Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition, a student-based legislative lobbying group for the University.
“The MSLC expanded the scope of what I found I could carry into my career,” he said. “Going into the medical field, my hope is that I would be able to pair things like working with the MSLC and potentially working on the Board of Regents to foster those fields as a whole and advocate on behalf of those greater initiatives while also serving the University.”
Tastad said his experience with the MSLC paired with his research experience have helped him develop a broad understanding of the University’s missions. Despite lacking the level of experience relative to other regents, Tastad said he brings an understanding of the impact policy issues have on students.
Recently, Tastad started a personal care product start-up company with two friends. The business, Face to Face Organics, currently sells lip balm. For every tube sold, the company donates $1 for a facial reconstructive surgery for a child in Ethiopia.
“We’re bringing our customers face-to-face with a giving mission that connects them with how they’re using the product and how they’re impacting the life of a child,” Tastad said.
Last year, Tastad and the MSLC spent time at the Capitol during the legislative session advocating for a bill that would have required two students on the Board of Regents. The bill met staunch opposition and didn’t pass.
Tastad said the candidate experience has been enjoyable and familiar.
“Through my work with MSLC, I had the opportunity to testify several times last year during the legislative session,” he said. “To some extent, I’ve kind of felt at home in this process.”
Drew Coveyou is the youngest regent candidate and the only one not from Minnesota.
The journalism sophomore from Ottawa, Ill., said he has a “wide variety of interests” revolving around advocacy and public policy, which influenced his decision to apply for the board.
Coveyou first heard about the vacancy after reading about it in an “Undergraduate Update” email.
“I thought, ‘There’s no reason I can’t apply,’” he said. “And after answering some application questions, I realized that I do have several things that I can bring to the table.”
RCAC chair Duncanson said that an undergraduate student is “not necessarily” less likely to be recommended for a position.
“When we look at the undergrads, we look at the amount of accomplishments they’ve made in a relatively short amount of time,” he said.
Despite his short time on campus, Coveyou said he has a “pretty in-depth knowledge of the University” due to his work in the Office of Admissions, which offers training on all the different programs the University offers.
Coveyou also works as a tutor and a peer research consultant and is involved in the University Honors Program.
“I think that my ties with all the different programs and communities on campus give me an in-depth knowledge of what the University has to offer and also what it needs to work on.”
Coveyou said the main issues involve tuition, record numbers of student debt and making education accessible. Coveyou also noted a few issues highlighted by the late-December The Wall Street Journal article.
“A lot of what the board can do depends on the funding that is secured from the state for the next year,” he said. “But right now, there are organizational issues and accountability issues that need to be worked on.”
The prospect of being a student on the board might be intimidating to the average undergraduate, but to Coveyou, the possibility of influencing policy is exciting.
“These policies have very far-reaching effects, and if you want to be able to change them or to affect those policies, you have to get involved in the process.”