The evolution of cultural climates and students' needs required the adaptation of the student body president’s responsibilities and role as a student leader.
According to Anna Edwards, associate vice president for the Department of Student Life, the student body president is meant to be the “voice of students” and to advocate for changes that enhance the student experience at the USC Columbia campus.
The student body president also upholds constitutional codes and bylaws, appears before the student senate and presides over the entire organization of Student Government.
“The student body president, and the goals and execution of their role, really models that, of what happens around us,” Edwards said.
However, the goals of past student body presidents have changed in order to adapt to new circumstances and the changing needs of USC students.
Edwards said when students get into the role of president, it oftentimes becomes apparent that some of the goals they want to achieve are more difficult than they originally thought, due to there being "a couple fundamental things that have to happen before we get to that particular need or desire.”
Issy Rushton’s term as student body president saw shifts in society and public safety that required her office to pivot its focus to more pressing issues at hand.
“She was very quickly forced into leading during a pandemic and leading during social unrest and injustices with the death — or, the murder of — George Floyd, and so that required her and her team to navigate and reshift where their priorities were going to be,” Edwards said.
From gaining a seat on the board of trustees to leading amidst protests of the Vietnam War on campus, the student body president has grown with the university. Harry Walker, USC’s first Black student body president, made advancements for women’s rights on campus and gained national attention as the first Black student body president of a major university in the United States.
Elected in 1971, Walker’s administration established hotlines for women to receive counseling in case of pregnancy and created a cabinet position for co-ed affairs. Although the executive cabinet no longer has a position for co-ed affairs, USC currently offers pregnancy counseling for its students through Student Health Services.
According to Victoria Eslinger, the secretary of co-ed affairs under Walker’s administration, Walker’s campaign for student body president was groundbreaking in his outreach to the student population.
“He’d done things that other candidates before had not done. He went, he talked to the foreign students. He talked to the women. He talked to people whose needs were not being met by the university, and he was very much embraced,” Eslinger said. "In fact, there was no runoff."
Luther Battiste, Walker’s campaign manager, said Walker represented a change at USC both through who he was and through his goals for the campus.
“In the past, you had a typical type of person that was student body president. Usually somebody who was in a sorority or fraternity, somebody came from an old, well-connected political family. You know, Harry was none of that. You know, by his ethnicity, his background, hair. It was different,” Battiste said.
Walker also attributed his electoral success to the diversity of students he gained support from.
“We decided to make a run not as an African-American students organization, but as a student who was supported by a diversity of students, because our campaign council was made up of students of all races. We had students who were not only male and female, but both Black and white. We had some of the foreign students who were involved in our campaign, so we started off as a much more diverse operation than the university had ever seen,” Walker said.
According to Edwards, every student body president is different, but one thing that remains the same is the support they receive from the teams of other students assisting them. Student Government staff members, advisers, executive cabinet members and student advisers all help make up the support system that assists in executing the responsibilities of the student body president.
“There are teams that help that person navigate these waters, and to adjust priorities, and to develop strategic plans, and then help execute those plans because it can't be a one-person show,” Edwards said.