Interview with Forest – SGA HNC Representative
Forest Purnell, a second-year MAIS student, spoke to us as the Hopkins-Nanjing Center Representative (HNC Rep) at SAIS Student Government Association (SGA). We are pleased to interview Forest to know more about the SGA and his efforts as the HNC Rep.
What is SGA? Could you briefly introduce its role and structure for HNC students and alumni who may not be familiar with it?
The SGA is an organization that aims to facilitate the life of students at SAIS and help them actively participate in the events held on and off campus. The function of the SGA are described in its current five objectives (likely to be revised after new Rep’s discussion):
- Orienting and introducing new students to the school
- Representing the student body to the administration, faculty, community, and alumni
- Promoting student opinions and interests
- Ensuring proper student representation at the appropriate levels of policy formulation at SAIS
- Encouraging student participation in the development of SAIS
As for the structure of the SGA, it is relatively horizontal and flexible. The composition of the SGA includes the President (also Chair of the Executive and the principal officer of the SGA), Vice-President, and the Treasurer. In addition, the SGA has:
- A Europe Center Representative
- A Hopkins-Nanjing Center Representative
- A Programme Chair
- Two First-year Representatives
- An MIPP Representative
- An MIEF Representative
How did you find out about the SGA? Could you share with us how you became the HNC Rep? What characteristics would make a student a good HNC Rep or SGA Rep? And what does a typical day look like as the HNC Rep?
Well, I have to confess that I learned about the SGA from the big signal group chat, which isn’t my preferred channel of communication but seems to be the beginning and end of all things these days. My understanding is that SGA has an election every new semester. This year the process of applying to become a representative included sending an email plus cover letter along with a resume. It’s worth noting that an interview is not needed to apply. Instead, you are asked to “face the voters” by uploading a video about yourself on YouTube. I chose to share my video on both YouTube as required and the Chinese social media platform WeChat. I did this to better reach the entire SAIS community, not all of which is physically located in D.C.
I’d say basic requirements for a HNC or SGA Representative are good time management, strong communication skills, and a desire to serve the SAIS community. The role does keep one busy, but it is also enjoyable, especially if you like working with a team and making things happen. My responsibilities include integrating students from Nanjing into the SAIS student body, representing the HNC in D.C., organizing events relevant to the HNC community, and improving communication between the Nanjing and Washington, D.C. campuses. A critical task of the HNC Rep is to coordinate with the HNC’s Banwei, or class representatives, which is the elected 4-person student committee usually located in Nanjing but now spread around the world due to the Center’s current state being mostly virtual. To sum up, the role of the HNC Rep is to facilitate, communicate, serve, and lead. If you’re thinking about becoming the HNC Rep next year, you should give it a shot!
How do you connect your previous work with what you are doing now at the SGA?
Bennington College, my undergrad, was established by followers of the American philosopher John Dewey. Dewey was one of the founders of pragmatism, a school of thinking that emphasized “learning by doing,” explained most succinctly in his book Art as Experience. From my point of view, you haven’t learned something until you are able to reproduce it or somehow make it new. Everything I’ve done since undergrad, whether working in documentary film during the Fulbright Program in Beijing, or as a Naval Officer on ships over the last half decade, were both manifestations, I’d say, of this fusion of big concepts and everyday life. Being a practitioner is something deeply ingrained in my approach, not to deny the importance of theory but to always be able to lift my gaze toward the real world and the impact on lives and communities. SAIS has a similar kind of ethos being a school focused largely on the “art of the possible.” For me, being part of SGA means being part of the strong experiential component of the school, both by building stronger ties within our walls and facilitating the structures that allow us to be a place where students organize a substantial amount of programs.
Were you inspired by someone to join SGA? What was your motivation to become the HNC Rep?
One time, I was talking to last year’s HNC Rep and he shared his experience. I found it fascinating and beneficial personally. I also met other people at SGA and their experiences match my reasons to apply.
I mentioned before that classes at the Hopkins Nanjing Center remain virtual, so for my first semester at SAIS I attempted the extreme cost-saving measure of staying at home in the Allegheny Mountains, with more bears and deer in the immediate vicinity than people. I jury-rigged a 4G modem onto a giant antenna to eke out sufficient bandwidth for Zoom. Needless to say, the experience taught me once and for all that man is a social animal (or at least I am). I also lived in northeast D.C. my second semester but didn’t show up to campus much. Now that I am in D.C. and close to campus, I appreciate any opportunity not only to exchange knowledge, which can happen online, but to make real friends and relationships of trust, which is much harder over Zoom.
Secondly, I ran for the SGA election because I did not like the idea of the HNC lacking student representation. Much of my time as a SAIS student I have felt invisible, unsure of where to find resources or how to meet new people. The administration can only do so much to help the situation and much depends on students reaching out to each other. I also think making the program itself more visible and keeping people informed about the situation of the HNC is an important thing. I’ve found that most SAIS students and faculty I meet in D.C. are surprised to learn that the classes are still virtual, and some even think the program has officially relocated to Taiwan.
An interesting silver-lining to the situation is that I am probably the first SGA representative who is simultaneously a student at the HNC, whereas usually it would be a returned MAIR certificate student in this position. If every crisis is also an opportunity, I see this as a chance to harness the latent energy of our HNC diaspora, from Nanjing to Taipei to Minneapolis and to Dupont Circle, to build more lasting links to the D.C. campus that can last beyond my tenure. I see greater closeness between the HNC and the D.C. campus as a good thing because there is a real chasm between the beltway China expert culture and the academic China-studies ivory tower that SAIS is uniquely positioned to address.
Finally, unlike some, I don’t see person-to-person cultural exchange as naive or belonging to a previous era in the US-China relations. As a former Fulbright research scholar to Beijing, some of the most critical insights that I’ve had about big policy issues or cultural topics started with a frank conversation over lunch. I remembered this when a bunch of HNC students got together for dinner in September on the occasion of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival holiday. It seemed daunting to find a venue, cook, plan transportation and all of that, but people stepped up to make all the work light. This event inspired me to take more leaps of faith and just keep making things happen. Maybe the next dinner event will be a Lunar New Year gala, who knows!
How does the experience as the HNC Rep link to your career? What is the most challenging thing about the role?
As for the career question, all I can say is “all in good time.” I know many of our alumni from the HNC, at least the ones I met in D.C., go on to research analyst positions, whether for business or government or whoever else wants to be “in the know.” I think the subject of this work sounds fascinating, but going back to my “social animal” comment, I’m interested in something more team and project based. These days the U.S.-China relationship seems to shoot through every topic on the global stage, so I’m sure my studies will be relevant to whatever I end up doing after graduation. For now I am focused on doing what I can to make the HNC experience the best it can be under current circumstances, strengthen the connection between the HNC and the SGA in D.C., and write a quality thesis. The challenge is a practical one of time management, and also a mental one of maintaining a disposition that doesn’t sacrifice contemplation for action or vice versa. Very pragmatic!
What are your general plans and ideas for the upcoming events?
There are three main areas that I want to focus on. The first I would label as “student-organized academic activities.” Beth Wooten, an MAIR student who works at the China Center here in D.C., had the great idea of developing a “research partner” program between the campuses. This would involve matching up students with sufficiently advanced language skills who have similar research interests, to share resources or conduct fieldwork for each other. I know many HNC students would be interested in this kind of opportunity, especially over the course of their thesis research. Second, I’m working with one of the Banwei to develop a virtual version of an old SAIS tradition of “brown bag lunches,” which would give students a chance to have a small-group, informal chat with a professor from the other campus. I’m also keeping the HNC community in D.C. aware of particularly relevant events they could be involved in, such as the China Club’s US-China Dialogues. On top of all of that, for the whole SGA, I am the key organizer for SAIS Debates and next semester’s Student Speaker Series.
The second area of focus is communication. I’ve been keeping a close personal eye on all the ways people share information about events and opportunities within HNC and the SAIS D.C. campus. Thinking back to my “exile days” in the woods and in northeast D.C., I never received the Blueser or was aware of many student club events. There would be a great mutual benefit to bridge appropriate and relevant information between the various HNC locations and D.C., and I’m thinking of the best way to filter through the noise of the many chats, newsletters, and flyers to bring people on both campuses the stuff they would be interested in knowing. Another issue I would like to work on is the lack of a directory for student leadership. Right now the only way to find out who is leading a student club, or who the HNC Banwei are is to ask around, if you know who to ask. I think it would be empowering for student leaders to have a resource that would allow them to know “who’s who” and be able to reach out to each other laterally to plan events or just share notes.
For recreational events, I’m aware the HNC had a karaoke competition and some movie nights last year. I would like to keep these events going and expand them. I am considering whether these events, though in-person, could still connect to the virtual community through things like, if it’s a competition, posting leaderboards, or for a movie night, having a virtual discussion afterward.
Finally, SGA is generally looking for volunteers that would help us increase capacity to do events like all the ones I mentioned above. I would be excited to work with anyone who is interested and committed to making any of the items I mentioned or other innovative concepts come to life.
Many sincere thanks to Forest for his time, for sharing plentiful information about SGA and passionate plans to improve the connection between the HNC and the SAIS D.C. campus as the HNC Rep. Now, it is up to us to harness opportunities to engage the wider SAIS community, including the Hopkins Nanjing Center. We are hoping to see many new events this academic year, and await everyone’s active participation.