For Student Government’s First Black Woman President, Reform Continues

Junior Hafzat Akanni (CAS) looks back, and ahead

portrait of Hafzat Akanni

Junior Hafzat Akanni (CAS), the first African American woman to be Student Government president at BU, led a slate that won a landslide victory this spring. Photo by Cydney Scott

May 3, 2019
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The first African American woman to serve as president of Student Government: Hafzat Akanni’s political résumé starts with that distinction. But there’s more: she and Empower BU, the slate she led in April’s Student Government Executive Board election, won by a landslide (1,396-628).

And that puts wind at their backs in pursuing unfinished parts of the ambitious agenda Akanni supported as executive vice president of last year’s Student Government. Indeed, voter turnout eclipsed last year’s, which itself was two-thirds again the ballots cast in 2017.

That leads junior Akanni (CAS) to declare mission accomplished on a key plank of last year’s agenda, remaking Student Government as a visible force in students’ lives.

“I thought it was really beautiful to walk into a room of students and not know anyone” during this year’s campaign, she says. “We did the same thing we did last year: grassroots campaigning, meeting with every student group that would allow us the opportunity to sit with them.” (Before serving in Student Government, her own awareness of campus governance had been confined largely to her friendship with its president.)

The Executive Board that governed during the last year “has increased Student Government’s presence across social media. I see their posts across Twitter and Facebook pretty often,” says sophomore Shaun Robinson (COM), editor in chief of the Daily Free Press, the University’s independent student-run paper.

Akanni’s predecessor as president, senior Devin Harvin (CAS), says he also has emailed monthly activity updates to all students.

The flurry of activity saw Student Government shed an anonymity that had been so pervasive that junior Suzie O’Michael (COM), Student Government’s current director of events, says the student president’s talk at her Matriculation two years ago “was the only kind of exposure to Student Government I had.”

As for concrete achievements, Robinson and Harvin cite the esprit-building exercise of resurrecting a spring concert, which Student Government organized after a five-year hiatus. Tickets sold out within 12 minutes of becoming available, says Harvin.

More enduring is the beginning of free menstrual products in campus bathrooms, a student Senate initiative that came to fruition under the Executive Board, Robinson says. Packages of maxi-pads and tampons shared space recently in the Student Government office with more typical accoutrements.

Nigerian-born and reared in Ireland until her family moved to the United States six years ago, Akanni had a disappointing political baptism in high school, when she lost a race for student body president. That made her nervous as this year’s ballots were counted, she confesses, even though she was running on the notable progress last year’s Student Government had made on its agenda, which also included:

  • An online list of global scholarships for Terriers to consider.
  • Gender-neutral bathrooms are “in the works” as BU begins the laborious process of converting the half of its 1,500-plus accommodations that are single-occupancy to accommodate anyone, “so you don’t have to run 20 minutes to use a gender-neutral bathroom,” Akanni says.
  • Opening Mugar Memorial Library 24/7 for study a week before finals yielded to the budgetary obstacles to staffing it, so instead, Student Government secured student access to West Campus dining halls during reading period last semester, while also providing study/R&R space, with food, in the GSU. “We’re trying to encourage healthy studying habits,” Akanni says. “Some students will study for eight hours and not get up, not eat, not see sunlight.”
  • A bigger campus monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), was put aside after BU chipped in $250,000 to a Boston initiative that will include an MLK memorial on the Boston Common.

One plank proved more elusive. Arranging free textbooks for students has proven “extremely difficult,” Akanni says. So Empower BU will encourage professors to donate copies of texts they’ve written to BU’s libraries for free access by students. (Free online texts are offered haphazardly across the University, Akanni says.)

“I have met students who have told me that they have not taken classes because they cannot afford the textbook for those classes,” she says. “I mean, you’re already paying $69,000, $70,000 to go here; why should you not be privileged enough to take a class that you have paid to take, just because you cannot afford the textbook?”

As Akanni looks ahead to life post-BU, the ever-striving president-elect hopes that she and her fellow Student Government members can accomplish even more next year: “I can’t wait to come back for Alumni Weekend,” she says, “and see the voter turnout be 6,000 people…however many Alumni Weekends it takes for me to come back to see that happen.”

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For Student Government’s First Black Woman President, Reform Continues

  • Rich Barlow

    Senior Writer

    Rich Barlow

    Rich Barlow is a senior writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. Perhaps the only native of Trenton, N.J., who will volunteer his birthplace without police interrogation, he graduated from Dartmouth College, spent 20 years as a small-town newspaper reporter, and is a former Boston Globe religion columnist, book reviewer, and occasional op-ed contributor. Profile

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