Fairfield University, a predominantly white institution, elected Junior student Aliyah Seenauth on Feb. 28 as the first-ever woman of color to serve as the 76th Fairfield University Student Association president with an overwhelming majority of the votes cast by students of all classes.
A week after her win, Seenauth confessed that she remains in shock after the contentious election.
“I am still in shock, I’ve definitely processed it but I don’t even know if I’m excited, overwhelmed … I’m still very in shock,” expressed the newly elected FUSA President.
She also pointed out the waves of congratulations and kindness she received from students, faculty, staff and friends once she was announced the election winner and how it resembles the “point” of her campaign.
“It means a lot to me because it feels like my whole point of it all was to feel like I’m not doing it by myself. So it’s like for everyone else to be very supportive of me, I really appreciate it,” said Seenauth while describing how little things, such as appearing on the Mahoney Arena jumbotron as FUSA’s president-elect and vice president-elect during last week’s doubleheader games “means a lot”.
However, the most considerable excitement over her win comes from her family, which she describes as feeling “excited” and “over the moon”.
Another focus that Seenauth wants to highlight is the ability she now has to “give back” by opening the room for more students of color to be part of her historic win.
Karen Donoghue ‘03, FUSA’s first female president and current Vice President of Student Life, congratulated Seenauth’s win and reflected on the significance of being a “first”.
“As we continue to celebrate women’s history month, I want to congratulate and applaud Aliyah’s most recent victory in the FUSA election. Aliyah has accomplished something that has never been done at Fairfield, breaking down a barrier for future women of color. This ‘first’ message to other women of color [is] that they should believe in themselves and follow their hearts and minds to do great things.”
Donoghue continued by saying that “my hope for Aliyah is now that she has broken down a barrier, she helps other women and women of color do the same at Fairfield, and continues her path of success.”
Fairfield’s Black Student Union president, Mekaylia Ingram ‘25, describes Seenauth’s win not only as a win for student minorities but also as a personal gain.
“Being a Black woman and having Aliyah as President means so much to me,” said Ingram. “She represents not just Black women, but many other students of color, first-generation students, students in healthcare and just the student body as a whole. She has been a force since she stepped on campus and has stopped at nothing to enhance the student experience.”
Her Vice President, Junior student Zach Vargas, revealed more personal and behind-the-scenes details on the duo’s campaign and the significance of the win to him.
“I think the first emotion that I felt [after the win] that is the most positive one is relief. With the process, there was a lot of fun. From our preliminary conversations regarding our initial desire to run to getting our photos taken to planning out our Instagram. It was very, very exciting,” commented Vargas. “It didn’t feel like a chore, but based on the events that transpired and stuff that turned against us, everything was a battle, and us winning meant that battle was over.”
A campaign filled with challenging moments
This election cycle saw the rise of Fizz, the anonymous made-for-college-students application that has rapidly spread through campus, and unsurprisingly, students also used it to talk about the 2023 FUSA presidential election. However, the comments, which escalated after the FUSA debate, were mostly personal attacks involving the Seenauth-Vargas campaign, which prompted the FUSA Court and both campaigns, with Seenauth being the first one, to release statements condemning the harmful comments.
“During the course of this election, we have seen a substantial amount of cyberbullying on the social media platform ‘FIZZ’ on the basis of race, gender, identity, appearance and more […] The Court, as well as FUSA, finds this to be completely unacceptable and will not stand for it continuing,” said the Election Commissioner and the FUSA Court in a statement sent to students on Feb. 27.
When discussing the challenges that her presidential campaign confronted, Seenauth emphasized how Fizz’s arrival coincided with the presidential election. So for them, it was not a shock to see how the student population started to approach the election in the app, but not that the harmful comments posted wouldn’t happen if the individuals were saying those things in person.
“We were distraught about comments that were posted on Fizz and all honesty because we knew they didn’t speak truth to who we are. But we felt we had to learn in a very hard way that people are gonna say whatever they want,” said Seenauth while pointing out that the comments made it difficult to feel motivated about running for FUSA president.
“We knew we wanted it very badly and we were going to do whatever we had to do but there were times when we felt lost and felt we didn’t really have as much support as we wanted to.”
Meanwhile Vice President-elect Vargas pointed out that at some point, he started to ask himself whether staying in the election was worth it with how personal the attacks they both received through Fizz were getting. Obviously, they didn’t go through that path “but the fact that we had to grapple with that was not something that we were ever expecting to have to deal with.”
He also described how both of them experienced a state of isolation amid the growing number of hateful comments on Fizz and the stress and pressure that comes as part of the campaign.
“And then I think one feeling that we both felt was isolation; everyone that we reached out to provided answers, but we didn’t know where we could go except for each other. But we were probably tired of each other at some point because we just kept talking about the same thing, the same rendition of the same message of Fizz,” confessed Vargas.
In terms of the content of the comments, Vargas expressed that the attacks weren’t just directed only on both of them, but at all the students they represent.
“It was people of positions of extreme privilege, taking advantage of an anonymous app to speak on a bias that they’re probably not very educated on. Because for me, you can’t blame people for not being uneducated, but you can blame them for not wanting to educate themselves,” noted Vargas.
Lastly, in response to the multiple anonymous posts on Fizz expressing that “the election must’ve been rigged,” President-elect Seenauth rejected the false claims and pointed out that the association’s election process tradition of 76 years.
“I trust the student association to the fullest, so I know it wasn’t rigged. I know and I think everyone else should know that this is handled very constitutionally. The court is very on it; they’ve been on it the whole time throughout all the election days,” recognized Seenauth while asking students to trust and have faith in the process and the organization.
Prioritizing Student Wellness and Diversity
As one of their campaign initiatives, the Seenauth-Vargas ticket highlighted the creation of a health and wellness student committee within FUSA. She explained that by creating the committee, “we are hoping to have a representative that vouches for different areas of health and wellness.” These areas include, but are not limited to physical and mental health, drug, alcohol and sexual assault awareness.
The Committee will carry out programming and fundraising initiatives and the applications for Committee Chair and Representative are available on Life@Fairfield.
With the expansion of Fairfield University to Bridgeport, Conn. with the opening of the Bellarmine Campus, Seenauth revealed that FUSA is in the process of amending its Constitution to have Bellarmine representation in the Executive Cabinet.
For Vargas, it is important to create awareness in the student body about the existence of this new campus and he shared how he has started to mention Fairfield Bellarmine in his admissions tours.
Another concern many students have been discussing is the lack of Social Justice courses available as part of the Core Curriculum offerings. Both Seeanuth and Vargas were emphatic in saying that they are working “to get more of those classes available” and noted that “they will not be eliminated.”
Vargas also reminded students that the Core Curriculum is not meant to be an obstacle, but “it’s something that you need to take part in order to be the most well-rounded person you can be.”
Aliyah and Zach got to know each other through a mutual friend, and it was not until they both started to work together as part the Team 26 of New Student Leaders that their relationship was fostered.
During the interview, Seenauth described how she casually mentioned to Vargas over the summer the idea of being her running mate and after deciding that she wanted him to run with her as vice president, she sent him a text message the week after winter break finished.
“So I just kind of texted him the week after we got back from winter break. And I asked him if he wanted to do it. That’s it,” said Seenauth in a cheerful tone while describing the process of deciding to run for president and selecting her vice president.
Vargas was quick to emphasize the relationship they both have created since working together over the summer as part of their NSL jobs and even joked about how long the text message he received from Seenauth was by comparing it to a letter.
Seenauth closed the interview by reaffirming her excitement about her new position and delivering a message directly to students.
“We’re very excited and I’m very open to talking to anyone, and we want to build comfort between students and us and we want people to come to us with whatever they want. I want everyone to consider us their friends.”