UGA’s First Female SGA President Since 2011 Has Significant Plans For the Coming Fall
By: Jennings Brooks
Photo Courtesy of Daniela Rico of The Red and Black
ATHENS, Ga -- Rachel Byers can remember the pounding of her feet across the Tate breezeway in the rush to get to her hired driver for the evening, arriving at her speaking engagement with just one minute to spare. That evening she spoke at five different student organization meetings in the span of an hour, reaching over 100 students in 60 minutes.
“You don’t recognize once you’re in [the election week] what a sprint it actually is,” Byers said. The two months of intense campaign preparation led to the busiest week and a half of her life. During election week, Byers only went to two of her classes, spending most of her time spread throughout campus to discuss her presidential campaign with a vast array of students.
For Rachel Byers, Student Government Association president-elect, the job is non-stop. “I love staying busy,” said Byers. “I’m the type of person where if I had nothing to do, I would just procrastinate and do nothing.”
Becoming the first female SGA president since Mallory Davis in 2011, however, Byers’ attitude is anything but lackadaisical. Since Freshman year Byers has been involved in Student Government Association (SGA), the Wesley Foundation, and the Zeta Tau Alpha Fraternity. Like many freshman eager to become involved, Byers found herself spread too thin during her first year at UGA.
Through trying to do everything, however, she learned the importance of investing herself fully in the things that meant the most to her, starting with the First Year Senators program for SGA. Rachel was one of 16 senators who would grow to become the voice of her freshman class, researching and passing legislation that focused on advocating for the unheard voices of UGA.
A double major in political science and communication studies, Byers found herself skilled in both verbal and written communication. Being elected SGA president, however, brought a new challenge in “learning how to taper your message to your audience.” Byers claimed the student body was drawn to the Empower ticket because they saw three students from entirely different walks of life come together for a common purpose: bridging the gap.
Throughout her time at UGA, Byers had recognized there was no one “typical” UGA student. The Empower campaign platform sought to appeal to all students and focused on ‘bridging the gap’ for students to campus resources. “A lot of times students have a concern or a need but they just don’t know where to go,” Byers said. She plans to focus on developing better meal plan options, expand the spring welcome event for spring start and transfer students, and work with UGA Counseling and Psychiatric Services to create a long term referral system for students struggling with mental health - a personal passion of hers.
According to Byers, the UGA CAPS program currently has neither the capacity nor funding to assist students struggling with long term mental health challenges. The CAPS program generally offers students only two appointments before they must visit mental healthcare professionals outside of CAPS. Through creating a referral system for students to continue long-term treatment, Byers said they would still “make sure [students] are cared for and pointed in the right direction.”
During the election process, Byers saw how the different groups on campus “[felt] very siloed... [staying] within their own circles.” Despite this division across campus, Byers still drew a support system from the diverse pockets of UGA. According to treasurer Nav Singh, Rachel’s best quality is her ability to be intentional with everyone she meets. Singh said by forming meaningful relationships with members of the student body and the administration, Rachel has helped ensure that the “voices of our student body are heard.” Byers was awestruck by the sheer number of students whom she had never even met, pledging their support to the Empower campaign.
While campus division is a broad issue that may not be solved in any one year, Byers wants to continue to work on fostering a stronger community within the student body. However much it may be a cliché, her favorite part of UGA is always the people - and her greatest achievement has been to find ways to invest in and create deep relationships with those who differ from her.
“Looking back at our group I don’t know if I would’ve pegged myself as ‘the one that’s gonna be president one day,’” said Byers. Though the Empower ticket was victorious after just one and a half weeks of campaigning this past March, Rachel still has her moments of doubt. “There’s always this thought in my mind of ‘am I good enough?’”
As SGA president she has found herself on an entirely new playing field, oftentimes being the youngest in the room by 30-40 years, where she has had to earn the respect of her elders. “If I’m not confident in who I am then how are other people going to be confident in me?”
Yet it hasn’t always been this way. For most of her high school and college career, Byers struggled with finding her identity. “I was more focused on placing unrealistic expectations on myself instead of doing my best and being Rachel.” She praises her mother for helping her to grow in her self-confidence, and credits her success to her role models and mentors for pushing her outside of her comfort zone. Still, junior student and friend of Byers, Maddie Leger, said Byers struggles in giving herself enough credit. While this pressure may never diminish, Byers has learned how to accept not always being in control and being okay living a stress-filled life. She accepts that often “The hardest things are the best things.”
Campaign manager for the opposing ticket, JT Fagundes of ACT, said, “I know Rachel is a driven, ambitious person and will put her all into [this] position.”
These characteristics explain why students are drawn to Rachel - she has an aura that radiates a certain soothing strength. Though anyone who has conversed with Byers can faintly hear the intensity of the machinery churning behind her composed complexion. Quick to unapologetically state her own opinion, it’s evident why Byers is pursuing a law degree after graduation.
“There will probably be many times that come where I say, ‘why did I do this?’” Byers said. She has had to accept the tradeoff of sacrificing parts of her personal life for the duties of her position. There will be times when Byers is only home for 15 minutes to change for a meeting. To Byers, balance is about making the small tradeoffs - perhaps not looking polished for meetings so she can instead sit for a few moments to hear how her roommate’s day went. While Byers may forgo parts of her relationships, sleep schedule, and her mental and emotional health, she still would never choose to give up her position.
“This is easily the hardest, most stressful, yet most rewarding thing I’ve ever done - and it’s just begun.” Byers looks forward to seeing what gaps can bridged in the future.