Leading in Crisis: Student Government Association Co-presidents

December 17th, 2020

EMU’S THREE STUDENT GOVERNMENT ASSOCIATION CO-PRESIDENTS stepped into their collective new role just weeks after the spring semester shift to virtual learning. Summer challenges demanded full immersion: They balanced jobs, studies, self-care, and their own social activism while both representing their peers and responding to their needs with empathy, flexibility, and innovation.

From sitting on various COVID-19 fall planning committees to hosting informative virtual town halls for students, raising awareness to faculty and staff about microaggressions and facilitating the first-ever student-led orientation on race and racism, these co-presidents have expanded both their own roles and the definition of servant leadership. What can we learn from their experiences, their collaborative vision, and their wisdom?

“Anisa, Justice, and Allison model journeys of leaders who listen and care for one another and those they represent. Their high standards prioritize sharing information, sharing awareness, and sharing obstacles across identities and across campus. They have enhanced our collective leadership and given us a model to grow with and from as we continue leading toward change. #LeadTogether” –From Shannon Dycus, dean of students

Anisa Leonard

CLASS: Senior
MAJOR : Social work (Minors in honors and sociology)
HOMETOWN: Nairobi, Kenya/Harrisonburg, Va.

Justice Allen

CLASS: Senior
MAJOR : Recreation sports management (Minors in business administration, marketing, and coaching)
HOMETOWN: Waynesboro, Va.

Allison Shelly

CLASS: Junior
MAJOR : Political science (Minors in honors and journalism)
HOMETOWN: Collinsville, Miss.


ALLISON: We realized early on that what students needed most was to hear from administration in as many ways possible. We also realized that administration needed to hear from students. It’s so hard to know what information might have gotten lost along the way in such an unprecedented situation. This is why we chose to host town halls where we made video interviews with administrators for the first half of time and then used the second half for questions from students.

JUSTICE: With COVID, almost all the students (including us) were very scared, frustrated, and sad about every- thing. We were frustrated that the semester had been cut short, and we were missing a big chunk of our college experience. Scared because nobody quite knew what the future would hold, or what to do. Sad because, who wouldn’t be sad about all that is going on?

ANISA: A lot of us were still feeling angry and frustrated about the suddenness of our departure in March, and were feeling anxious about this upcoming school year. It quickly became apparent that what students needed was information, even if that information was “we’re not exactly sure how things will pan out, but here is what we are planning for.”


JUSTICE: It was after the death of George Floyd and with everything going on in the country that we decided to start working on the topic of racial issues in America and even EMU. This was not student-provoked at first. We just felt as a team this was needed. Then, in our first COVID town hall a student stated that we need a racial justice training as well. We were already working on this project, but it was that moment that it hit me how important it was that we work on this.

ANISA: The murder of George Floyd and uprisings that followed made it impossible for us to not do any thing. Allison, Justice and I are all from different racial backgrounds, and our exec team is very diverse as well. Our lived experiences this summer (and at EMU) were all very different, and that’s certainly something we talked about at our biweekly meetings. In our personal lives many of us were attending protests, signing petitions and making donations, so it felt natural to carry on that work in an official SGA capacity.

ALLISON: It was important for students to hear from administration about racial justice, but also important for students to hear from other students that this was something that was not a trend, that was not okay, and that we were deeply thinking about. This is where the statement on George Floyd and the Race Matters session stemmed from.


ALLISON: Care. As a leader, there are a lot of things being thrown your way. It’s pretty easy to let it all turn into a whirlwind that feels uncontrollable. But, when we allow care to prevail, really cool things can occur.

ANISA: Service. One goal our exec team set this year was “to approach service in ways that do not show bias and are flexible to taking on new tasks as the needs of the student body emerge.” In order to meet needs that emerged this summer, a lot of nitty-gritty behind-the-scenes work had to go down by a lot of different people who exemplified servant leadership.

JUSTICE: Patience. I like to take things into my own hands and sometimes can make rational decisions without running it by the rest of my team. I have learned that patience is crucial in a leadership position. You are going to run into difficult situations and difficult people. This is where having patience can shine in more ways than one. I know this is a trait I am starting to build.


ALLISON: My cross-country coach, Bob Hepler, taught me a lot about confidence, care, and taking initiative. Coach Bob leads in a way that challenges people to be their best, but also allows people to feel comfortable. I came into cross country after having not run for three years, and I had no idea how slow I actually was because he treated me as if I was his next ODAC champion. He values each person he interacts with, and this is the leadership I try to emulate.

ANISA: Carissa Luginbill, the residence director when I was a Community Advisor, taught me that so much of leadership is building relationships and practicing empathy. At the start of each of our building meetings, we would gather together and check in with one another about how the week was going, what we were struggling with, and what was bringing us joy. Developing those relationships with one another set an attitude of care, which made it easy to address hard things together as CAs.

JUSTICE: My previous track coach, Eric Camodeca, pushed me so hard and was so intense that at first, I did not really like him. It took a long time, but I finally realized that he did this because he wanted me to become a better athlete, but more importantly, a better person. Coach Cam also taught me about how to be more professional. And he is also one of the most charismatic people, which I learned a lot about by watching him.


In interviews, the co-presidents made clear their good works were the sum of many important contributions from valuable teammates on the SGA Executive Team: Vice President Theo Yoder, Treasurer Hannah Nichols, Secretary Tahj’e Coleman, and Vice President of Marketing Asha Beck. Additionally, Shannon Dycus, dean of students, and Rachel Roth Sawatsky, director of student programs, met regularly with the trio, listened, and empowered them to follow through on action (“to not just say what we students needed, but to DO what we thought students needed,” as Allison put it). All of these folks, as well as many faculty and staff, members of the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, and Black Student Alliance contributed to two major initiatives this summer: the mid-June publication of “Resources To Learn More About Race & Equity” and the late August student-produced “Race Matters” session during Orientation Week.