Last week, Noah Vanderkar became the first student to serve on the Associated Students of the University of Montana senate’s freshman-designated seat.
The seat was approved in ASUM elections last spring, making the seat a permanent position for a freshman senator. The hope was to bring the perspective of underclassmen living on campus into decision making in the student government.
“I think that getting picked definitely made me feel more at home and feel more accustomed to this new place that I call home,” Vanderkar said. “Coming from California it gives me an avenue to start really getting involved.”
Vanderkar grew up in Sacramento, California. In high school he served on the student body government, helped with several local campaigns and lobbied for local legislation. He was chosen for ASUM's freshman seat out of four candidates interviewed.
ASUM Senator Paul Tran welcomed the move to add the seat.
“I feel it’s a demographic that is most affected by the workings of the University, thus deserving to be represented,” Tran said.
Former ASUM senator Alexandra Akmal led the effort to create the seat.
Akmal was known as “the freshman senator” in fall of 2018 when she served as the only freshman for nearly two months, though a few more freshmen were recruited eventually. She embraced her role as one of the youngest in the senate with a different perspective than the rest of the senators.
ASUM looked at potential changes to its constitution last fall. Akmal saw it as an opportunity to ensure there would always be at least one seat solely for freshmen.
Akmal helped draft a resolution to include this change and presented it to the ASUM senate.
The resolution passed in the senate, which allowed it to be voted on as a referendum in ASUM’s elections last spring. Referendum SB42 passed by a margin of 80% to 20%.
SB42 caps senate seats at 27 seats instead of the previous 26, but the additional seat can only be filled by a freshman. Any student, including freshmen, can hold a seat on the senate, Vice President of ASUM James Flanaganthe said, the designated freshman seat is not the only seat a freshman can hold.
Flanagan said he sees the seat as an opportunity for another perspective.
“For this student, this freshman student, online college is normal for them because it’s what they’re coming into, so I think that’s going to be really interesting to see and hear about how things are working with them and how the freshman experience is really turning out to be,” he said.
Vanderkar said he has three main focuses for the fall semester: helping groups on campus that are at a social or economic disadvantage, better informing students on the experiences of minority groups on campus and ensuring freshmen get the campus experience.
Vanderkar said more events similar to the Silent Disco held during Griz Welcome Week could help with the third goal, but he acknowledged the need to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines, “to make sure that the housing, food and other parts of campus are as social, but socially distanced as possible.”
Vanderkar’s addition to the senate puts the current number of ASUM senators at 23.
Referendum SB41, which makes the senate more proportional to the student body, was also passed in the spring. The referendum sets one senator for every 500 students.
This referendum will result in around twenty senators after next spring’s election, a decrease from the 22 to 23 seats ASUM usually has filled. The number of seats will include the additional seat for the freshman who will join next fall.
“My hope is that this is just a way for freshmen to feel like ASUM actually cares about them,” Akmal said.