‘Inside UVA’: Former Student Council President Reflects on 4 Years on Grounds
Audio: “Inside UVA” with former Student Council President Abel Liu(16:27)
Liu said one triumph for Student Council was helping initiate the credit/no-credit option at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
University of Virginia President Jim Ryan: I understand that you really like birds. Are you a bird watcher? Or do you just like birds?
Former UVA Student Council President Abel Liu: I am an amateur ornithophile, a bird-watcher. But I have to tell you that the birds in Virginia don’t compare to the birds of Northern California.
Ryan: Okay, this podcast is over. Do you have something against cardinals?
Liu: Actually, I do. The birds in Northern California are hardy. There are a lot of, you know, pelagic sea-bound birds, that are just more interesting than the seasonal finches that pass through Virginia. I guess you just have stereotypical birds.
Ryan: Have you ever been to the Eastern Shore of Virginia? Don’t you think it has something to do with whether you’re near the coast or not?
Liu: I haven’t been.
Ryan: OK, well, I’m going to ask you to keep an open mind on Virginia birds. And just think about whether you can get to see the coastal birds, I think you’d be impressed.
Liu: Okay, I’ll add it to my bucket list.
Ryan: All right.
Hello, everyone. I’m Jim Ryan, the president of the University of Virginia, and I’d like to welcome all of you to another episode of “Inside UVA.” This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people at the University and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make UVA the institution it is.
I’m thrilled to welcome fourth-year student Abel Liu, an Echols Scholar, Truman Scholar, double major in sociology and economics, and former president of UVA Student Council. Abel, thanks so much for joining us today.
Liu: Thank you for having me.
Ryan: So I want to start right in on Student Council. I understand that you’ve been a member of Student Council every year that you’ve been here. What drew you to it in the first place?
Liu: It’s a good question, especially because I actually may be one of the few UVA students who did not participate in student government in high school. But when I landed at UVA, and heard about student self-governance as a tradition, I figured that it might be worth throwing my hat in the ring to run for first-year rep. Believe it or not, that is the most competitive Student Council election, hands down, across any year. Yeah. About 40 first-years run for three spots. Yeah. And then it’s like pulling teeth to get anyone else to run for any other year.
Ryan: What do you think changes between first year and second year? People find other things to do? Or –
Liu: Yeah, I mean, it’s not as shiny. It’s not as new.
Any case, I won the first-year election. And then my first Student Council meeting was a, sort of a joint budget session, first with a presentation from VP Bianchetto on UVA’s, you know, Academic Division budget, which blew my mind as a first-year. And I actually thought that I was voting on that.
Ryan: Even I don’t get to vote on that.
Liu: And the second half of the meeting was voting on Student Council’s own significantly smaller, but still substantial budget. And so I realized quickly that there were a lot of resources and ways to make a tangible impact in people’s lives in my very first meeting, so yes, I stuck with it.
Ryan: And you ultimately became president and your election was pathbreaking, because you’re the first openly transgender student to be president of Student Council, certainly at UVA, but maybe in higher education.
Liu: That seems to be the case. I think I am the first student body president who was openly transgender upon election.
Ryan: And was that significant for you? Or was that less of a big deal than actually being Student Council president? I was – I always remember Drew Faust, who was the first female president of Harvard. She would say, “Well, that’s great. But I want to be the president of Harvard, not the female president of Harvard.”
Liu: I think that’s largely how I feel about it as well. I never tried to be the first anything. And I think it’s less triumphant, and a little bit more exhausting than people might imagine.
Ryan: How so?
Liu: Well, having to set new norms and standards around, you know, say introducing yourself with pronouns or when I step into rooms that aren’t used to having transgender people in them. But I think I’m also actually the first Chinese American student body president at UVA. Very interesting. Yeah, and surprising, actually.
But there are moments over the course of my term, I think queer communities or the Asian American community needed a voice, and something that strikes me early on is following the attacks in Atlanta, there was a vigil. And I think it was really meaningful to have an Asian student body president in that moment to be able to speak. And trans and queer students actually stopped me quite often and let me know that I’ve made them feel more welcome at UVA. And so that’s where it matters. And that’s where it’s been meaningful. It hasn’t affected my agenda. It’s affected the way I interact with people.
Ryan: Yeah, that makes total sense. I mean, you’re opening a door that hadn’t been opened before. And other people can see that it’s open now.
Liu: Yeah, I can’t imagine what it would’ve meant to have seen a trans student body president give the convocation speech in my first year. So I appreciate it. I appreciate it.
Ryan: So talk a little bit about the day to day work of Student Council president. First of all, how many hours a week did you devote to this?
Liu: I think being Student Council president, it’s easily 40 or 50 hours a week. And over my four years at UVA, I think I have done about 10,000 hours in service to Student Council.
I guess on a normal day, I might expect to have some sort of internal Student Council meeting, whether that’s leading our cabinet or a public-facing general body meeting. I might be meeting with a few different student groups about issues that they’re facing, probably meeting with an administrator or two – anyone from the Dean of Students Julie Caruccio, even yourself every month. There’s a lot of writing and reviewing proposals, memos, and lots of slide decks, lots of presentations. But I think the thing I didn’t really expect is that there are also emergencies.
Liu: People have a lot of emergencies. And people also have a lot of definitions of what a 10 emergency is. So yeah, it’s a real mixed bag. But I don’t think you realize how much progress you’re making until you get to take a step back and look at what you’ve done over the course of a week or a month.
Ryan: Yeah. Well, it seems to me you were an incredibly successful Student Council president and someone who came in with a vision for what Student Council should be. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that. Because, from my perspective, it was a compelling and a really significant shift.
Liu: I would like to think so. My thesis for how Student Council can effect change at UVA sort of hinges on two pieces.
On one end of the spectrum, I think we need to recognize that Student Council doesn’t have direct jurisdiction over a lot of the things students want us to change. And we’ve talked about that a lot, whether student self-governance really means students carrying out the Honor Code, or its version of shared governance, where we have decision-making powers together. And so teaching my team, and Student Council broadly, just how you build these types of systems of shared governance through partnership, but in some cases, certainly negotiating has been really interesting.
And then on the other end of the spectrum, you have what people imagine when they think of student self-governance generally, and that’s direct student enfranchisement, direct student empowerment, either adjudicate honor or UJC cases, use the Student Activities fee. And so I’ve done my best to expand what students are directly enfranchised to manage and direct in my time in Student Council.
Ryan: Right. And looking back, I’m sure people ask you, you know, “What do you think your legacy is going to be?” I get that question already. And I feel like people are maybe giving me a hint about when I should leave. And I always say, “I don’t really think in those terms.” But I wonder whether looking back, there are one or two things that you were able to accomplish, obviously, with your colleagues that you think are the most significant?
Liu: Well, we have, as a team achieved, both tangible and intangible policy wins or shifts in University culture that I’m really proud of, some before I was even Student Council president. So if you ask the student body, “What’s the one thing that Student Council’s delivered for you over the last few years that made the biggest impact in your life?,” I promise, the answer would be the credit-no credit policy during COVID. And that predated my time as Student Council president, but I was on the front lines there.
And then, since then, I think a lot of what my team is focused on around essential resources for students like insurance grants, would probably be at the top of that list.
I’m most proud of, though, the way that the incoming and outgoing Student Council teams have taken ownership for the ways that Student Council has fallen short historically. So, a common complaint that we hear is that we’ve co-opted the work of, of marginalized students, or marginalized student groups throughout the years. And for the first time, we’re naming that and apologizing for it, setting out best practices for our team to follow to make sure that doesn’t happen again. And so we’ve built a lot of trust between groups that even a couple of years ago, would not have dreamed of working with Student Council. And so I’m most proud of that cultural shift, because it’s allowed us to produce tangible policy wins, like the insurance grant package, but it’s also just, it was the right thing to do. It was decent.
Ryan: And when you say “co-opt,” do you mean taking credit for work that other groups were doing?
Liu: Essentially, yeah. Or watering down some proposal or demand from a group that doesn’t generally get the mic. Yeah. And then taking credit for it at the 11th hour after decades of asking for it.
Ryan: Right. Yeah, yeah. So I want to talk to you a little bit about student self-governance, generally. What do you think is working? What do you think is not working so well? Or where do you think there’s room for improvement?
Liu: I can speak to Student Council the best, but I do have opinions on other major student self-governance institutions. What’s not working, probably across the board, is the ability of student-run institutions to meet students where they are and communicate to, you know, 25,000-plus students at UVA, just how what we are or are not doing is or could be important in their lives and why every student at UVA also owns Student Council or [the] Honor [Committee], even if they’re not a member. And so that, yeah, I think buy-in is a huge issue across the board.
Ryan: And do you think, if I could stop you for just a second, do you think that’s why turnout among students is usually pretty low? I mean, I think this year, 25% of students participated in voting in the elections.
Liu: Right, and what actually warms my heart is that that is essentially double the turnout rate from 2019 to 2020, or 2020 to 2021. My election had a bit of controversy. And so turnout was high, I think 40% of the student body.
Ryan: Yeah, it was like an all-time high in recent memory.
Liu: I can’t say whether or not it was a record, but it felt like a big shift at the time. Yeah. And so I think between the turnout and my election and the turnout of this current election, the conclusion I’m able to draw is that something is shifting and that students are starting to buy in to what Student Council is doing, because you’re right, the reason people don’t vote is because they don’t care, or they don’t think that it matters. I think we’ve demonstrated that communicating that broadly, is a huge issue for all of our groups.
Ryan: Right. So you are UVA’s 33rd Truman Scholar. Can you tell people who don’t already know, what is a Truman Scholarship? And how do you get selected?
Liu: Sure, the Truman Scholarship is a national competition for future change agents, and students who are looking to go into public service. You have to be nominated by your school and then selected as a finalist from your state before going through, you know, the final interview round based on your written application.
Ryan: So what does it cover?
Liu: It’s a very generous package of about $30,000, and some substantial programming and mentoring opportunities, professional opportunities embedded throughout your life as a scholar.
Ryan: It’s meant to cover graduate studies.
Liu: Yes, Exactly. Any graduate program.
Ryan: Any at all?
Ryan: Oh, wow.
Liu: But not the whole thing.
Ryan: Right. Right. And so what are your future plans? And then do you have an idea of how you’ll use this scholarship? What grad school are you headed to? Are you headed to law school?
Liu: Maybe, maybe. I have a wish list of graduate degrees that I might be interested in pursuing. So I’m trying to narrow that down. But I know that I’m interested in a master’s of urban planning. And I am also interested in a law degree, maybe a business degree, and maybe some degree in social theory. Well, we’ll figure it out. And I’ll keep, I’ll keep you posted.
Ryan: Yeah, please do. So my last question is, so you are a fourth-year student, coming to the close of your undergraduate career. What’s left on the UVA bucket list, if anything?
Liu: Oh, wow. That’s a great question. I’m saying goodbye to a lot of the places and people that made me. So, in the Jefferson Society, as a graduating fourth-year, you get to give a “swan song.” As a member, I’ll try to do that.
I’ve never been to Carter’s Mountain. So I’ll try to make my rounds there.
I’m writing a lot of letters, saying thank you to a lot of people, because I think writing in this time will be something that I’m glad I did later.
Ryan: Yeah. I’m sure it will be. Are there any faculty in particular who have influenced your time here?
Liu: Oh, absolutely. I’m a really big fan of all of the folks at the Equity Center. So professor Barbara Brown Wilson, Dr. Ben Allen, Dr. Sherica Jones-Lewis, that whole team changed the trajectory of my time here.
Ryan: That’s really good to know. Well, Abel, thank you so much for spending time with all of us and I wish you the best in the weeks you have remaining, and I hope Final Exercises are an incredibly joyful occasion for you and your family.
Liu: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Ryan: And Abel, thanks for everything you did as a member of Student Council and especially as Student Council president.
Liu: Thank you for having me.
Mary Garner McGehee: “Inside UVA” is a production of WTJU 91.1 FM and the Office of the President at the University of Virginia. “Inside UVA” is produced by Mary Garner McGehee, Brooke Whitehurst, Matt Weber and Nathan Moore. We also want to thank Abel Liu, Monica Shack, Athena Hanny and McGregor McCance. Our music is “Turning to You” from Blue Dot Sessions. You can listen and subscribe to “Inside UVA” and Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back soon with another conversation about the life of the University.
Abel Liu is in his fourth undergraduate year at the University of Virginia. An Echols Scholar as well as a Truman Scholar, Liu was the first transgender student to serve as Student Council president at UVA.
But that first is not something he sought out.
“I never tried to be the first anything,” he told President Jim Ryan on Ryan’s podcast, “Inside UVA,” which focuses on how a large public university is run.
“I think it’s less triumphant and a little bit more exhausting than people might imagine,” Liu said. “Having to set new norms and standards around, say, introducing yourself with pronouns when I step into rooms that aren’t used to having transgender people in them.
“I think I’m also actually the first Chinese American student body president at UVA,” Liu said.
There were times during his term as student class president last year that Liu said transgender and queer students and Chinese American students needed a voice.
“Trans and queer students actually stop me quite often and let me know that I’ve made them feel more welcome at UVA,” Liu said. “It hasn’t affected my agenda. It’s affected the way I interact with people.”
“Yeah. That makes total sense,” Ryan responded. “You’re opening a door that hadn’t been open before, and other people can see that it’s open now.”
Ryan asked Liu about the day-to-day work of a Student Council president. “I think being Student Council president, it’s easily 40 or 50 hours a week” of work, Liu said. “Over my four years at UVA, I think I have done about 10,000 hours in service to Student Council.”
On a “normal day,” Liu said he would expect to have an internal meeting with council, meetings with some student groups and a meeting with an administrator or two. “There’s a lot of writing and reviewing proposals, memos and lots of slide decks, lots of presentations,” he said. “But I think the thing I didn’t expect is there are also emergencies.”
Liu reflected on some of the improvements made by Student Council during his four years at UVA.
“If you ask the student body, ‘What is the one thing Student Council has delivered to you over the past few years that made the biggest impact in your life?,’ I promise the answer would be the credit/no-credit policy during COVID.” The policy allowed students to take their suddenly online courses on a pass-fail basis, rather than for the usual letter grades.
He said that shift was deeply gratifying.
To hear more about Liu’s thoughts about the positive impact Student Council can have at UVA, tune into this week’s episode of “Inside UVA.”