Christopher Zukas wants to be an agent of change. The recently elected president of Niagara University’s Student Government Association uses words like collaborate, unify, and transparent when he speaks about working with university officials, and he’s hoping that this spirit of cooperation will help bring about a change in Niagara’s culture so that it better matches its students’ vision.
To guide the change, he and his six-member NUSGA cabinet, with the assistance of several university administrators, created the first-ever student-developed strategic plan for the university. It incorporates the key issues from Zukas’ election platform and the ideas gathered from students in informal conversations, town hall meetings, and focus groups. Using the university’s strategic plan as a model, Zukas addressed the same issues, such as diversity, enrollment, residence life, and retention, in his proposal. He notes that because many of the students’ ideas aligned with those in Niagara’s plan, several of their initiatives have been included.
A key focus of the students’ plan is to increase communication among NUSGA and university entities. Encouraged by the vision statement the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M., NU president, shared with the university community asking for new voices to be brought into institutional decision making, Zukas reached out to a number of administrators to learn what their roles were and how students could have a voice in the decisions that impact them. As a result of these meetings, Zukas is working with the executive vice president’s office to place a student on each of the committees that addresses student life issues. Zukas himself serves on the university’s strategic plan committee and was a member of the search committee for the vice president of student life.
“If we can be true members of these committees, we can impact decisions and policies that directly affect students,” he says. “We can bridge the gap, be a voice for the student and also be a voice for the administration.”
Another major focus of the NUSGA strategic plan is environmental sustainability. Working with the university’s environmental stewardship club, NUHOPE (Niagara University Helping Our Planet Earth), NUSGA evaluated its events and activities to see where their carbon footprints could be reduced. NUSGA members now hope to share what they learned with the entire university community to help the campus become more energy efficient.
Two other initiatives Zukas is pursuing align with the university’s Vincentian tradition. “Strive to Serve” is an effort to increase the number of community service hours completed by members of clubs and club sports. While community service is already a requirement for organizations to receive NUSGA funding, Zukas hopes that this plan will encourage students to go beyond “the bare minimum” and commit to completing 11,000 hours (a challenging, but realistic goal, according to Zukas) per academic year. As an incentive, “milestone” targets were established. As each milestone is reached, NUSGA will make a donation to a local charity, thus enhancing the hands-on service provided by students with financial support.
“The long-term goal,” Zukas says, “is to make this a universitywide initiative” that includes faculty, staff, and administrators.
The second initiative is the establishment of an endowed scholarship fund that will offer financial assistance for student leaders who exemplify the university’s Vincentian values. While NUSGA currently offers an annual $1,000 scholarship (established in 2005), this fund will enable the organization to assist more students and share with them the surpluses that NUSGA has accrued in the past. Zukas worked with the university’s advancement office to establish the endowment, which will offer its first award after a three-year investment period.
“This is probably the biggest decision that NUSGA has ever been part of,” Zukas says, calling it a “forever-lasting decision.” “We will constantly be giving back (to students) and the endowment will grow.”
Making a lasting impact is a personal goal for Zukas, who hopes to pursue a degree in student personnel administration when he graduates from Niagara in 2012. He is already thinking about developing a transition plan so that the initiatives he helped to establish will continue on after he has left Monteagle Ridge.
“I want to make changes that will improve student life far past my time at Niagara,” he says. “Hopefully when I leave NU, I can look back and see that the initiatives have been completed and that I helped to create a future for others to be successful.”