Online students in conversation with ASU about creating student government

More than 30,000 are enrolled in ASU Online but have little to no representation in established student government

A group of roughly 250 students are rallying around the idea of creating a student government strictly for online students for the purpose of "advancement through involvement."

While nothing is finalized yet, students said they were excited about the prospect of being able to change how students are introduced to their online education, how they interact and how to create a better community for all.

The group, made up of students enrolled in ASU Online, has two subdivisions: outreach and advocacy and development. Both have worked closely with ASU Online and on-campus advisers to voice ideas for the creation of a brand new student assembly.

Construction of representation shifted quickly in the past few weeks. Students initially wanted to have a presence in whichever Undergraduate Student Government assembly best represents their major, but now they want to create something new where the focus is not just shifting resolutions to fit online students but rather drafting them with only online students in mind.

Lawson Miller, a graduate student studying history, first brought forward the idea of online student government in a private Facebook group and later created a petition to gather support. Miller said "tons of other students" interacted with the post – even the University (which runs the page) commented. 

"ASU brands itself as one of the best providers of education in an online format," Miller said. "And to live up to those ideals, ASU should recognize the online students as equal partners, as equal as on-campus students."

Miller said there's a lot of stigma around being an online student. He said students face different challenges in receiving the same opportunities for jobs and internships and sometimes miss out on being able to physically see and be with classmates and friends.

"We need to be able to at least build a government to work from," Miller said. Student government for on-campus students has an established framework with bylaws and precedent. Exclusive online programs are new, but this kind of student leadership has "never been the case for online students," Miller said.

Part of the outreach and advocacy group's mission is to inform others about the project, which is something Roxanne Wilcox, the group's point of contact and a senior studying health education and health promotions, has been working on for several months.

Wilcox said it was "a little disheartening" to know online students had little to no representation in student government.

ASU Online offers more than 200 degree programs to over 30,000 enrolled students. The Graduate and Professional Student Association at ASU has one assembly seat for the online population at large. However, the seat remains vacant for a student to show interest or be appointed before the end of the fall semester.

"I wish on-ground students could understand that being an online student is not as easy as many assume," Wilcox wrote in an email to The State Press, explaining she has two small children and many other online students have full-time jobs or are caretakers too. 

Miller agreed with that sentiment and said when on-campus students transitioned to online learning in the spring due to COVID-19, jokes and complaints on social media made students understand just how much initiative goes into teaching online classes and being an online student.

"It's terrible to say but the pandemic has created a lot of opportunities and brought to light some of the overlooked issues people normally wouldn't consider, like online education," Miller said.

Discussions thus far with administrators have been for brainstorming. Students involved in talking to both ASU Online and on-campus advisers say it has been a group effort.

USG Tempe Senate President Kate Hostal said in an email that ASU Online advisers were in contact with Associated Students of ASU advisors in order to learn more about administering student government, creating bylaws and ensuring fair representation. 

"We have heard about the concern from online students," said Hostal, a junior studying finance and business law. "We are here to help answer any questions they have in regards to student government."

Casey Francis is an assistant director for student engagement, overseeing the out-of-classroom experience for online students. Francis said she saw a spike in her students using the same technology on-campus students used to talk face-to-face like Zoom calls for clubs and creating new Facebook groups. ASU had four online clubs at the end of the semester but now has 11, most of them surrounding specific majors, Francis said.  

From a University perspective, Francis said having a student government would be beneficial in allowing student voice to be heard from existing and future clubs. 

"I am really dedicated to ensuring that the students really are able to flesh out their ideas in a way that's really complete in order for leadership to have a really clear vision of what they're looking to do," Francis said.

Using student government to fund, support and expand student organizations is the first priority for many online students, who said it is hard to connect with others beyond a screen name or email address. 

With student organizations forming with the help of student ambassadors in the proposed government, "we have the potential, both in the short-term and the long-term, to advocate for student needs," said Ellen Streitwieser, founder of IDEAS Student Society at ASU and senior studying biochemistry.

Miller, the student who proposed the idea of an online student government, said the only skeptics have been those worried about an increase in fees, but those who run clubs say it could be essential in creating community.

"I want to do it right. I want to be part of something that lasts, that is not just a representation of the voices that are unheard but something we'll be able to adapt and grow and support," Streitwieser said. 


Reach the reporter at pjhanse1@asu.edu and follow @piperjhansen on Twitter. 

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