On questioning: A love letter to the Student Advocate’s Office

Growing up, I never understood the power of questioning precedent. In my first few moments at UC Berkeley in fall 2015, I was awestruck by our student community’s ability to put everything into question. Four years later, I owe my personal ability to do so to a beautiful and rare organization known as the Student Advocate’s Office.

In excited conversations with new friends in dorm halls, spontaneous moments when I fell victim to flyering on Sproul Plaza or in the countless info sessions I attended as a lost freshman, I was struck by my peers’ ability to question everything around them. I have always grappled with my first-generation immigrant and biracial identities. Having spent most of my life trying to reconcile my parents’ divergent cultures at home with my own upbringing in the United States, I resonated strongly with this drive to challenge fundamental assumptions.

My peers asked why precedents had been created and if they should be followed as well as how power was intimately intertwined with our reality, and they asserted that all truths were socially constructed. And as a freshman trying to absorb all of these questions and unlearn many of the truths I had taken as fact growing up, I was quickly transformed by how my campus community rarely settled for complacent acceptance of the status quo. But nowhere have I seen this commitment with the same degree of depth, intensity and detail as in the Student Advocate’s Office.

The ASUC’s Student Advocate’s Office, or SAO, is a nonpartisan and independent peer-to-peer casework service that supports more than 400 undergraduate and graduate students each year with any issues they might be facing related to their experiences as students. This can be anything from a cost of attendance adjustment to accusations of conduct code violations to withdrawals. Founded out of the Free Speech Movement, SAO was created to be the voice that fought back against power when campus organizing fell short, and to make sure that all students could have someone in their corner.

Through the decades, this mission has taken many forms, but in our current moment, it’s materialized in the form of peer advocacy and long-term policy initiatives that withstand the cyclical nature of college campuses. We support student organizing by leveraging our seat at the table. Our work is technical, grounded in details, expertise, long-term partnerships and persistence. Through my eight semesters in the organization, I have seen us constantly reimagine and reconstruct what were historically accepted as unquestioned truths on UC Berkeley’s campus, one case or policy idea at a time.

In my first two years, I served as a caseworker for more than 15 students who were accused of committing violence. I had the privilege of helping my peers navigate the code of conduct and Title IX processes, and I encouraged them to access their due process while also engaging in transformation and accountability of the harm they had created. I unlearned my notion of harm, questioned punitive and unequitable criminal processes and became a fierce proponent of restorative and transformative justice practices.

The fall of my sophomore year, I worked with my mentors to create a pilot emergency housing program for students facing displacement. The idea came out of our casework experiences, from supporting student after student who was skipping meals, working three jobs and taking out loan after loan to make ends meet. Our pilot program was the first formal pool for housing relief on campus. We worked with students who were couch surfing or sleeping in libraries or empty campus buildings — homeless because of violence, an emergency or simply chronic basic needs insecurity.

Our work, along with the tireless advocacy of the Basic Needs community, engaged this campus, encouraging a rethinking of what poverty could mean in the college context and of the many faces it could take at UC Berkeley. Two years later, I am rarely in an advocacy space where basic needs security is not mentioned. Last month, after a year of constantly asking nuanced and difficult questions, we passed a campuswide basic needs referendum, which will provide these students with consistent relief over the next 10 years. Our small pilot initiative evolved into the largest student-driven basic needs initiative in the nation, and it radically reimagined what economic justice could be at UC Berkeley.

From my small haven in 412b Eshleman Hall, I have been empowered to unlearn and reconceptualize new realities. For that, I thank my SAO community and peers in the ASUC — for their tireless and persistent willingness to act with a critical lens. During moments when our work in the ASUC faces backlash, I cannot help but feel thankful that the wider campus community continues to question norms and ask why — the same culture that changed me in 2015 and continues to hold us all to the highest standards as a student organization.

As I get ready to leave Berkeley and enter what feels like a distant outside world, I am consumed by gratitude, emotions and the drive to continue questioning in the ways SAO has taught me how — by leveraging my commitment to the longevity of structural change in order to advocate for what is inclusive, what is equitable, what is radical and what is necessary.

Sophie Bandarkar served as the 2018-19 ASUC Student Advocate and has been a caseworker in the office since fall 2015. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political economy and minors in city planning and public policy.