Through my OT Student Leader Series, I join notable alumni and current members of Oakland Tech’s student body to learn about how they made their mark on the school and how Oakland Tech shaped them. For my first interview, I sat down with Caitlin Pilisuk, last year’s student body vice president, to talk about our experiences in student government and school activism, as well as our shared interest in economics (Caitlin will be studying at UCSB this fall), pets and current Oakland culture.
How have you gotten involved in the Oakland Tech community?
I was in Paideia and Engineering. I think that probably says a lot about me just right there. I was also involved in the Pi Club and co-founded the Spikeball club, I played on the women’s golf, soccer, and lacrosse teams — I did soccer all four years. I’m going to be the assistant coach of the JV soccer team this year if my college campus remains closed and I’m living at home in the Spring.
How did you get involved with Student Government? What did you focus on in Student Government?
I first got involved in my freshman year. I didn’t have a position, but I was good friends with Samuel Getachew and Keiley Thompson who had positions so I helped them out with student government events. I volunteered for Winter Ball that year, and I had a lot of fun doing that. The next year, I was the sophomore class secretary, and then I was appointed class secretary my junior year.
When I was in the student government, my focus was on school spirit. I thought that was really important. It disappointed me that we as a school didn’t have that much spirit. I thought improving Spirit Week would be a good way to address it. One idea I had was having a survey with potential themes and sending it out to the whole school and letting students vote on it. I talked to Rosemary — I probably talked her ear off about that — and it never materialized. But I really believed in that idea.
How was your experience running for elected office?
It wasn’t super, like, eventful, because you just fill out the election materials. Actually last year, I was told by multiple people [that] I didn’t need to get the signatures because I’d done it for previous elections. And on the last day to submit materials, I was informed [that] we had to get signatures, so I had to run around during lunch that day to get them all in time.
What is your opinion on our elections?
I think they’re handled poorly. We don’t have a good enough method for disseminating information. I was lucky because I went to student government meetings and got all of that information. It’s important for student elections to be democratic and that means election information has to be easily accessible to all students.
I’d like to see higher numbers of people voting. It a student votes, they do it of their own volition which is bad for turnout because often students don’t care enough to vote or just haven’t been reminded that they should.
What would you like to see in future student government elections?
A whole day focused on voting (voting day) and a class period where teachers are given Chromebook carts and ballots are sent to everyone’s email. If you want higher turnout you have to give students all the tools and give them a block of time to do it in. There are no consequences for not voting (there shouldn’t be), but without something like this, you can expect low voter turnout.
What about appointments? Do you think appointments are a good alternative to elections?
Appointments are not the most democratic, but they are necessary. Officers in the student government understand the responsibilities of the positions so they are likely to appoint effective candidates. The beauty of appointments is that they’re quick and streamlined, but also allow current officers to pick students they know will do a good job.
How would you improve the appointment process?
I don’t know that I would change the process, honestly. I don’t know if that’s bad, but every single year, we have kids who run but don’t come to meetings once they’re elected. That sucks when the ball gets rolling and we have the winter ball coming and we need a team. There are ways to make it more democratic but that slows down the process of looking for candidates. If you need a position filled, look for people that ran for positions that same year or have held positions before.
What is your opinion on student government operations?
I think that the student government was kind of disappointing during my senior year. During junior year, we didn’t have a lot of teacher oversight. Rosemary and Ms.Travick weren’t that involved. We had a lot of opportunities to get involved and work on our own initiatives. Last year with Rosemary in charge, we didn’t get a lot done, and we had a lot of hoops to jump through. We even had a meeting with Ms. Morrison, and nothing we asked for came to fruition. We have to ask for permission to make pretty common sense changes, and every step of the way, Rosemary blocked our efforts with threats of “state audits” and gave no practical reasons for why we couldn’t do what we were asking for permission to do. It’s really difficult for us to operate without having a real reason. Why should we avoid making changes that will make our operations easier, more democratic, more transparent, or faster? There’s always that weird threat that we hear from the administration about getting audited by the state… maybe it’s true, but I’ve never seen proof that we get audited. Who has the time to audit Oakland Tech’s student government?
What have you learned from serving in Student Government?
Being on student government, you get an interesting perspective on how the school works and the power dynamic in the school. You learn that some teachers have a lot of interest and involvement in the school’s operations.
Do you think that Leadership Class and Student Government should have more separation?
Yes. Yeah, I do. I think there needs to be a lot of communication between the two, but when the two are managed by the same person student government is at the whim of the leadership class. I think leadership gets to make some decisions that student government should probably get to make, like picking spirit weekdays. It never sat right with me that 20 or so kids who enroll in the class get to make decisions for the whole school when the actual elected representatives had no say. Even though we advocated strongly for student interests, our ideas were often ignored in favor of letting the leadership class make decisions.