Between the myriad of unpredictable, confusing and oftentimes frightening developments on New College’s campus over the past two years—the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, several on-campus intrusions, various legislation in Tallahassee that would have threatened the integrity of New College and its students and the continued uphill battle of student and staff retention, engagement and communication—”unprecedented” is truly the only word that can be used. One consistency during this time, from Sept. 11, 2020 to May 1, 2022 has been third-year Sofia Lombardi’s position as New College Student Alliance (NCSA) President.
Although, in a way, that has also been unprecedented. In a “Final note as NCSA President” email sent on Apr. 29, Lombardi revealed the full extent of her work over the past two terms—advocating for COVID-19 vaccines and accessible testing on campus, launching a task force on campus housing security and pressing administration to distribute door alarms, reducing police presence during Walls and Center of the Universe Parties (COUPs), ensuring that student voices were heard during the Spring 2021 New College Presidential Search and so much more—as well as tolls the position has taken on her well-being and academic success, complete with allusions to inattentive and abusive behavior at the administrative level.
“Unprecedented” describes the ways in which the expectations of the role of NCSA President have evolved over Lombardi’s term, the depth of her advocacy for New College students and the ways in which the road has been paved for student advocacy going forward. As Lombardi’s time as NCSA President has finished, we at the Catalyst wanted to see her off with a game of Ten Questions—reflecting on everything that brought her to this point, and everything that may come afterwards.
- How or when did you know that you wanted to run for NCSA President?
“My first year, I was having a really hard time fitting in at New College and feeling like I found my place,” Lombardi told the Catalyst. “When I was just starting to make friends, the merger bill had come out of the Florida legislature.”
The aforementioned bill was 2020 House Bill 7087, which would have merged New College with Florida State University (FSU). The bill was initially passed on Feb. 12, 2020 by the Florida House Education Committee, and according to a past Catalyst article, “New College President Donal O’Shea, leaders at the other affected institutions and many state legislators said they had not heard about this bill before the evening of Feb. 10.”
“Pretty scary time your first year, to realize that the school you had just gotten really excited about might not be around for you to graduate from,” Lombardi continued. “And it didn’t seem like people around me at the time, in student leadership, really wanted to do anything about it. So I banded together with Ellie Young, who is a current thesis student, to organize some testimonies from students and travel to Tallahassee together to testify against this bill and hopefully defeat it. Along the way, I grew really close with Catalyst Editor in Chief at the time, Jacob Wentz (‘20), and future Editor in Chief Anna Lynn Winfrey (‘21) who traveled to Tallahassee with me. Anna Lynn did coverage of it. They were two people who I felt like really embodied the New College student experience.”
“I remember after Tallahassee, when the bill had finally been defeated, hopefully partially due to the testimony we had provided and hopefully for a long time, we were celebrating and we were chatting, and Jacob asked me why I wouldn’t just run for NCSA President. And I was like, ‘Hm, I don’t know, I haven’t thought about that. There has to be someone more qualified than me.’ That’s when I started to have conversations with people around me, and just sort of understand what the student needs were at the time, and how if I were to take on a role like that, I could be an advocate for students.”
“And then COVID-19 hit, I was sent back home, and I had a lot more time to think about it than I ever anticipated. Once spring elections had turned into my election on Sept. 11, 2020—[I was] just spending that summer sitting with myself, connecting with friends virtually, realizing how unprecedented the times we were about to experience were. I was like, you know what, why don’t I just give it a shot. So I came back to school, I filed all the paperwork, banded together with some older students to co-write my platform, and things went much better than I ever anticipated. I feel like we started something really special with that election.”
- Compared to when you first began campaigning, what would you say has changed about New College campus culture? How would you say you have changed?
“I think our class [the incoming cohort of 2019] especially has had such a unique experience of New College. All of the trouble that COVID-19 brought us and the complications we faced due to that, everything surrounding the break-ins we first faced in Fall of our second year. So many issues related to that, I feel like it led students to a higher level of vigilance and mutual care and respect for each other than we’ve ever had before.”
“I think New College student culture has always been similar in some regard. We have students here who aren’t afraid to speak up for what they want and need, who genuinely care about the people they live and work and study with. But I think as a result of those issues, we have students now, less afraid than ever to take on what the college needs and advocate for themselves.”
“As for myself, I was reflecting on some of the interviews I first did for the Catalyst when I was first elected. I found a quote from my first post-election interview, it’s like, ‘I’m not afraid to have admin dislike me,’ essentially.”
The quote is from an article published about two weeks after Lombardi was first elected, where she said, “I’m obviously going to do my best to push with what I think is right and what the students want. I know that’s not going to be extremely popular with administration, but I’m not afraid of barriers or having to face obstacles.”
“I feel like I’ve had a very similar arc to campus culture, in that I came into this role ready to go, but without a lot of guidance and with a lot of intimidation surrounding me,” Lombardi continued, reflecting on this past statement. “Not to mention the issues of COVID-19 and break-ins, but all in my first eight weeks, I had that on top of a Presidential Search Committee. And it was very confusing, and very stressful and very scary. I feel like I have really personally strengthened myself as a student advocate and leader, where I still make the same decisions I would have made two years ago, but I make them with a lot more confidence and a lot less fear of the repercussions of what I could potentially experience, because I’ve experienced it all.”
- How did your work at the legislative level shape your presidency here on campus?
“I feel like the work I did in Tallahassee will, of course, always be super meaningful to me because it’s exactly what kickstarted me first getting into this role. Since then, I think what’s really important is that as much as I often dislike those trips to Tallahassee—because, to be frank, I think it’s a well-known fact that I disagree with much of the legislation that’s being passed up there—I feel like it is so important for New College’s face and voice to be seen and heard up there.”
“So much of what I’ve done has been trying to get, not just myself, but some of my cabinet members, some of my peers up there with me as well to really demonstrate to the legislature that New College won’t go down without a fight no matter what, and we’re really a smart, talented group of people that deserves the same respect that every school in the State University System (SUS) gets.”
“And that’s part of the reason why I ran for External Vice Chair within the Florida Student Association during my second term. That role has really been incredible to work on New College’s reputation, not just within the SUS and with my presidential counterparts, but up in Tallahassee. I’ve really enjoyed being able to make a change up there, even if none of the legislation I supported ever passed, I think we left our mark on Tallahassee for sure.”
- How would you say the expectations for the role of NCSA President have changed over your term?
“When I first came into this role, there were zero expectations for me. And as a result, there was very little respect for the NCSA, both on the student side and on the admin side. A lot of the work I did in my first term was improving our legitimacy as an organization, especially as an advocacy organization, to be taken more seriously by every campus constituency. My goal was always to be seen by administration as their equal, as someone who wanted to partner with them to do good work for our shared constituency. And I think we made some progress there, not nearly enough, but I think we’re in a good spot to continue to fight to be seen as equals on this campus.”
“I think what I wanted to do with my presidency was to show that, as unprecedented as this is, this should be the baseline. This is what I expect out of every person that follows in this role. And it’s what students should expect, that level of service and care and advocacy for them.”
“And it’s hard. It is not an easy job to do, especially with the support we have on this campus, or rather the lack thereof, but I feel that my two terms especially have set my successors up for success, and not having to navigate a lot of the procedural, bureaucratic, institutional work that is needed to be done to set student government up for success. And now that people have that, and that is documented somewhere, I really want to see future presidents and their cabinets involved in as many aspects that they can handle of campus culture and student life.”
“I hope expectations have shifted, and I hope as a result, future student governments are able to more strongly advocate to administrators they work with to be taken seriously, because the only way New College moves forward is if we are engaging with administration on that level, and if they see us as someone they want to engage in an equal partnership with to truly do good work for this school. Until that mutual respect is there, I worry about New College’s future.”
- What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment as NCSA President? And similarly, is there an accomplishment of yours that you would like to bring more visibility to?
“I could say 18 million things because I’ve had such phenomenal cabinets over the last two years who have been so excited to serve students and have done really incredible work. I think both times I ran, I ran on decreasing police presence. And I thought I was going to be able to do a lot more than there ended up being. But I’m really especially proud of the changes they’ve made to student life. Namely, removing police from internal patrols at COUPs and at Walls.”
“ I think that’s so critical to students feeling comfortable in student life events like that, and feeling like they aren’t there to be surveilled or watched, but they’re there to have fun and engage with their peers and build relationships. And I know that’s probably been a really visible change, at least for people like us [current third and fourth-years] who saw the immediate difference. But I just can’t stress how important that is, and I hope that accomplishment inspires future student leaders to continue pressing on the issue of police presence.”
In terms of accomplishments that Lombardi wanted to see increased visibility towards, she cited her role in creating a campus housing security task force alongside notable contributors, third-years Chloë Arizona Fodor and Rocío Ramírez Castro.
“During the break-ins, I think people are really quick to forget how much work and how much emotional labor myself and my cabinet did immediately following those break-ins to keep this community safe, and I would just ask that people remind themselves that students are the ones who fought for them during our bleakest times. I was the person who pushed for distributed alarms, I was the person who established the work force on campus safety, I was the person who kept constantly advocating for change to our policies to keep students safe. And I did this all within the third month of my first term, when I was still navigating my own feelings around safety, and my own approach to my work myself.”
“But I think it serves as a really important lesson for students that we are the ones who keep each other safe, not admin. And that’s not right. And if we want that to change, if we want to have the adults who are paid to serve us actually do their jobs, then we have to recognize that it was students who kept us safe, it was our peers who kept us safe during times like that. And I would just ask that that is remembered, and if we want that level of care and respect to change from admin, we have to collectively stand up and make it clear that we won’t take what’s happening to our student leaders anymore.”
- Can you comment on your experiences of student leadership and mobility in the context of the pandemic?
“No past president could give me the level of advice and support I needed because nobody had ever experienced this before. And it was really terrifying, especially navigating policies and trying to keep each other safe, especially when I knew so little about the virus, but especially in a state like Florida where we’re a public institution and we’re expected to respond to the Board of Governors (BOG). I think it made way for, again, an unprecedented level of mutual care and respect among students If you look at our cases—I’m sure there’s a number somewhere—we had such few cases in the last few years, even compared to peers our size.”
New College ceased participating in contact tracing on Mar. 1, and so no longer requires students or employees of the college to report to the Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC) if they test positive. Because of this, it cannot be said with any certainty how many positive cases New College has had in the past few months, but a COVID-19 Update released by Vice President of Finance & Administration Chris Kinsley on May 6 announced that “the College continues to experience occasional instances of students and employees testing positive for COVID-19.”
Even so, according to a past Catalyst article, the highest number of on-campus personnel held either in quarantine or isolation on campus between Sept. 1, 2021 and Mar. 1, 2022 was 10 people on Feb. 10.
“We did have to make changes, like those COUP replacements, at least twice, technically three times,” Lombardi continued. “I would do it all over again, but [they] were quite exhausting to put together. But I think if there’s anybody who could survive and thrive during a pandemic, it would be New College students. We have such incredible levels of creativity amongst us that I feel like really got a chance to shine even during some of our most difficult moments.”
- Do you have any further comments on the administrative abuse you referenced in your Apr. 29 Final Note email?
“I do want to elaborate on that, because I received such an incredible outpouring of support from peers, faculty and staff after sending that letter—which is such a perfect testament to what this community can and should be. The only way we achieve that consistently supportive and respectful community is by standing up and voicing what we need.”
“I’m voicing to peers, faculty, staff and all campus leadership that students need more. Students are crying out for help. We are in the midst of a national mental health crisis, which doesn’t just make it all the more worse that we are continually failing students, it makes it deadly. Student leaders, like myself, have tried to work with leadership on big issues and are treated so poorly in return. I am sick of experiencing and witnessing abuse, and then when I’ve worked up the courage to speak out about it, to hear from leadership that they cannot and will not act. I am sick of students paying to live and study on a campus led by people who do not care about them.”
“I want everyone —especially the administration—to know that the end of my tenure does not mean the end of this fight. I will continue to protect the best interests of my peers until someone cares enough to protect us themselves.”
- How might you advise other students working closely with administration to advocate for themselves if the need arises?
“One line I’ve tried to remind myself of and my successor of is to protect yourself and protect your peace. It’s not a secret that a lot is expected out of you as NCSA President, as a student leader in general, but especially as NCSA President. And there are going to be times where you’re going to be unfairly treated, no matter what, especially with our current state of affairs.”
“My advice would be to not be afraid to seek out support from your peers, from your faculty members who truly care about you, from your student leaders, from your former student leaders, like myself, who want to help you navigate these things. I would add, don’t be afraid of seeking action, even within formal routes. Don’t be afraid to file reports, don’t be afraid to do what is needed to protect yourself and to protect your fellow peers. Just know you are not alone in the difficulties you experience, and as sad as that sounds, at least you have people around you who know what you’re going through and can help you navigate it, and who can work to ensure that this happens to less and less students.”
- Is there anything that you think you’ll miss about being NCSA President?
“My last couple weeks were really focused on trying to reflect as much as I could and trying to share inspiring words as far as I could push myself without crying. But I feel like I really thought I would miss engaging with students, and meeting new people, and advocating for our needs. Then I took a step back and I realized that I’m still going to have access to all of these things, even more so now that I have more time on my hand.”
“So if there is something really unique to the role that I know I will miss, I think it’s getting to know and work with such an incredible and talented group of people such as the cabinet. That is an experience really unique to student government, especially unique to New College as a whole, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have an experience like that again. That level of teamwork is really, really inspiring. I can’t tell you how much I am grateful for both of the cabinets I worked with over my last two terms. They are all comprised of such incredible people who love New College so dearly and just want to do everything they can to serve their peers as best as possible. I still have relationships with most of my former cabinet members, and I’m excited to have relationships with them where I’m effectively not their boss anymore.”
- Is there anything you’re looking forward to now that you’re no longer NCSA President?
“I’m really excited to have more time on my hands. I’ll definitely be tied up with thesising and still having an on-campus job somewhere, but I’m really excited to be able to go to student events more often and engage with students just as a fellow student, and as someone who deeply loves New College and wants to get more involved. I would love to personally work on reviving some old traditions and ensuring that institutional memory is as preserved as it possibly can be. I’m just really excited to re-engage with the campus in a way I haven’t since my first year.”