When Yale College Council President Saloni Rao ’20 leaves her post on May 8, she will leave behind a legacy of proposing and implementing small-scale, concrete policy measures while simultaneously laying the foundations for larger institutional shifts.
At the outset of her administration, Rao aimed to create “actionable change,” increase student engagement with the YCC and strengthen its legitimacy in the eyes of the student body. According to Rao, the YCC she took on was a “sinking ship.” Shortly after Rao was elected last year, the YCC faced backlash after the News reported that its Events Committee had used money intended to fund campus activities to purchase Patagonia sweaters for its 13 members. She noted that especially after this scandal, the organization lost legitimacy and was considered the “butt of jokes” by many students.
“The question was: How do we take a massive, institutionalized, well-funded but historically mismanaged organization and turn into something that’s vibrant, reactive, legitimate in eyes of students?” Rao said. “I think we’ve turned the organization around, in no small part due to a team of incredibly hardworking people who’ve sacrificed hours and hours to what at the end of the day is just another student organization.”
YCC Vice President-elect Grace Kang ’21 said that the YCC was “honestly nothing before Sal came in,” and that Rao essentially “[built it] from ground up.” Without Rao’s work reshaping the YCC, Kang said that she “probably would not have even considered” running for vice president this year.
During Rao’s presidency, the YCC became bicameral, expanded Dean’s excuses for athletes and students experiencing mental health issues as well as started many new initiatives such as the New Haven Interns program. The Council also established a pilot program that offers free menstrual products in all 14 residential colleges, pushed for a new nighttime Yale Shuttle line connecting the residential colleges and worked with the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale to pilot a program that offered late-night dining hours in the center’s Kosher Kitchen on Monday through Thursday nights. Rao noted that unlike previous YCC administrations, she is still pushing through several projects and plans to keep working “every single second” until her term officially ends.
“[Rao] set an expectation early on that the YCC was going to get things done, and I think we can certainly say that we did,” YCC Vice President Heidi Dong ’20 said.
Rebecca Taber ’08 — a member of the YCC Board of Trustees and a former YCC President who has served as a mentor to Rao — said that Rao has done “an exceptional job” of balancing long-term and short-term policy priorities. While this year’s YCC has seen “actionable wins,” Taber explained that Rao’s administration has also planted “long-term seeds” in policy areas that “don’t get resolved overnight,” such as creating minors and addressing concerns about mental health.
Yale College Dean Marvin Chun told the News that he values working with the YCC, and called Rao an “excellent partner.” He added that her care for students and the Yale community has led the YCC to “deliver actionable change.”
“As a person, she is tremendously well-organized, responsive and energetic,” Chun said. “When initiatives hit obstacles, I appreciate that Sal is practical and patient.”
Rao said that she is most proud of how the YCC’s reputation has improved and how many students now “place their trust in [the] organization.”
She noted that though seniors typically become disinterested in campus activities, many have actually become involved with the YCC through the New Haven Explorers program or by applying to YCC executive board positions.
“As one of the — if not the first — women of color to run the council,” YCC President-elect Kahlil Greene ’21 said, “she made sure to bolster the work and support of historically underrepresented groups within the YCC.”
Taber noted that Rao’s ability to lead and organize people has been a big factor in the successes that the YCC has seen this year.
Dong also said that throughout their work together, Rao was “organized” and “could always find a plan for new strategies to try.”
“She’s a superwoman and made a ton of stuff happen, but she is also just a really effective leader at setting up systems and teams and people,” Taber said. “That is not something many college leaders can do naturally, and it’s something I’ve been really impressed by.”
Rao noted that during her administration, the YCC was not very “reactive” to conversations happening on campus, such as those surrounding the sexual misconduct allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 in the fall and the admissions scandal in the spring.
Still, Rao said that she is not sure whether she regrets the YCC not stepping in or issuing statements about those conversations because the council lacked legitimacy and was largely irrelevant to students at the beginning of the year. Rao added that she has recommended that Greene become more involved in campus conversations and activism during his presidency next year. She encouraged him to use the YCC’s platform to unify and comfort the student body, but highlighted that it can often be difficult to represent every student in the College when taking on this role. In the recent YCC election, Greene included Rao’s recommendation in his platform and promised that the YCC would become more involved in campus activism.
“Nothing we say is ever going to represent every single student,” Rao said. “At the end of the day we don’t just represent the majority of students, we represent all students. How can we actively make sure that all students are reflected in whatever statements we issue, whatever actions we take? I think something that’s really tricky — perhaps impossible — but definitely something that I know the YCC is going to have to sort through in this upcoming administration.”
Rao won last year’s election with 961 votes — 38.22 percent of the total number of votes.
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