Undergraduate student leader Debbie Lee reflects on change progress at USC

USG president Debbie Lee
Undergraduate Student Government president Debbie Lee. (USC Photo / Gus Ruelas)

Campaign slogan “Forward Together” sets the tone for this student leader’s involvement in President’s Culture Commission

by Lynn Lipinski

Deborah Lee’s Undergraduate Student Government presidential campaign slogan turned out to be more far-sighted than the third-year political science major and her running mate Blake Ackerman had bargained for.

Created in early 2018, their “Forward Together” slogan was intended to reflect their desire to rally diverse undergraduate student interests on initiatives such as the opening of an emergency food pantry on campus. Lee and Ackerman, who had served as student presidents and vice presidents at Beverly Hills High School, figured that their previous experience in student government would be a prototype for what to expect in advocating for undergrads at USC.

But shortly after winning the election, she saw the scope of her student leadership role widen well beyond what she had experienced in high school. The university community began grappling with the aftermath of revelations of misconduct, first at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, then at the health services center, and students were upset.

Rebuilding Trust

“Forward Together” soon grew beyond its student-centric roots. It expanded to mean finding ways for student leadership to work together with staff and faculty and the Board of Trustees to contribute to university decisions and work to change the culture of the university.

It was a role that Lee and other student leaders had to earn. Getting a place at the table was only the first step. Speaking up and getting people to believe in them and recognize them as partners and not just a box to be checked was another challenge.

“I’ve realized our role this year was establishing students as partners first and foremost, but also rebuilding trust in a lot of places where it was broken,” Lee said. She’s tried to build mutual respect with faculty, administrators, trustees and others while emphasizing how they collectively can move forward as partners.

Naturally, students see things that need to be fixed, she said, but they also see all the good that USC can do. And many times students bring valuable insight into the pulse of what’s happening in the university community.

She acknowledges that sometimes students don’t feel like they are a large part of the equation. “But I think even in those spaces what I’ve learned is that it’s important to be assertive and confident. When you bring honesty and authenticity to the table, people have no choice but to listen and to feel impacted in some way, shape, or form even if they don’t express it,” she said.

No Quick Fixes

Lee is proud of how she and other student leaders have carved out an impactful role for students. In part, this meant that she devoted hours and hours to meetings, task forces, committees and commissions representing the student voice in university-wide efforts to embrace a culture of care, concern, consultation, and compliance.

She hopes that the work being done through the President’s Culture Commission and others will reap real change and bring healing to campus, even if it comes after she’s graduated and moved on.

“I think society tells us that we need instant results and instant impact. And there should be a sense of urgency around fixing things and doing the right things. But long-term healing [and changing culture] takes patience and continuous work. It doesn’t get fixed by one certain action or one certain statement or one action plan. It’s a series of things, building upon days and days of work.”

That kind of culture change is expected to take years, extending beyond many current students’ tenure at USC, so one thing Lee hopes is that the university administration and faculty continue to see students as partners in the process and not simply a box to be checked off.

“People need to be willing to listen to what students are experiencing. This year, we’ve gotten to a point where people have been really receptive to me and other student leaders and I’m really grateful for that. I hope we don’t lose that traction in the midst of the transition,” she said.

A Little Cheesy but Also True

She and Ackerman have talked since about the campaign slogan that they once thought was a little cheesy, realizing that it had become the message they have tried to lead by.

“I hope that the administration, faculty, staff and other stakeholder groups on campus recognize that there are people who are in the student population who genuinely want to move forward together,” she said.