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From Argentina right back to the SGA elections

The University of Buenos Aires (UBA) has approximately 300,000 students, 134 different colleges, 11 campuses spread across the city, counts 14 presidents of Argentina since 1890 as its alumni and is completely free.

It is managed by a massive and disorganized bureaucracy, one which allowed a friend of mine to enroll in a class two months into the semester because someone “left the system open.”

The school of Ciencias Sociales, where I take my courses, is a famed hotbed of Political activism. Noted graduate Che Guevara peeks down from murals on the school’s walls between thousands of fliers advocating hundreds of different political causes. They’re against the recent coup in Honduras, against the development of U.S. military bases in Colombia, against the Argentine president, for the imprisonment of the former Buenos Aires Chief of Police. Pretty much any and every cause imaginable takes up real estate on any free visible space in the building, creating a mish-mash poster fire hazard of epic proportions.

Waiting between classes, among people freely taking a cigarette in the industrial-looking building, it is fairly common to be approached by people flyering for their respective causes. An earnest and persistent group of students, it is also common during the first 10, even up to 30 minutes (that is if class starts within 30 minutes), for them to enter and flyer in classes.

Last week, I was sitting in class eating an alfajor (a fantastic Argentine cookie cake with a caramel-like substance called dulce de leche in the middle) waiting for the already 20-minutes late teacher to arrive when five or more groups came in one after the other for different causes. This rate was even higher than normal.

I then realized that the hallway fire hazard was on a significantly grander scale. Also, posters had started showing up on classroom walls. I took a closer look and realized that each set of posters belonged to different political parties within the school. I was in the middle of the every-few-years or so school election season.

At UBA, students and teachers run political parties together ranging through a wide spectrum of beliefs. The combined slates bring students into leadership positions within student services and bring faculty into department leadership positions.

Student services include selling assigned photocopied readings – teachers assign packets of the specific readings expected of students – at 50 percent of the independent vendors, a variety of student-run food businesses, book stores, academic advising and a council that meets with faculty over academic requirements. All of these are done with the cooperation and assistance of the faculty.

The night of the elections, I returned to my campus to see the school’s famed political activism at its most fevered pitch. Crowds lined the street campaigning for every one of the parties. The entrance was obscured behind the posters of groups that completely disregarded decorum. A line stretched through the halls of people waiting to vote. Everyone was captivated and aware that the future of their school was decided by their choice.

This spirit of political activism and academic freedom made the University the target of many of Argentina’s brutal military regimes during the Cold War. The University has stood as one of the most important institutions in the country since its founding; a massive monument to the liberating power of education.

What drives the leaders of UBA are higher goals than political platforms. There is a universal devotion on the part of the people to the advancement of education. Even across party lines, faculty, students and administrators cooperate as custodians of an essential piece of Argentina. Petty political differences fall by the side in favor of a universal appreciation of an institution that gives all involved so much.

Student Government is limited by the creative approaches taken towards it and by the passion of the students that it represents.

Today and tomorrow are the University Massachusetts senate elections. A large group of passionate and talented student leaders are running this fall and if you can take five minutes to vote, five minutes to show that you do care about more than just drinking and getting a degree, but you truly care about the quality of your experience – you might just end up surprised by the results. Or at least, you will have stood up to say that you do care about the place where you’re spending four of the most important years of your life.

As for those lucky enough to be chosen by their peers, the powers of a government are only limited when it pursues one mindset. UBA has existed as a flexible institution, tacking and jibing to survive through the chaotic politics of Cold War Latin America. Additionally, the power of the students has come through cooperation and the pursuit of common causes with the rest of the school body, faculty and administrators. Everyone has the same goal, to make their school the greatest it can be. And with everyone together, the goal can truly triumph.

Michael Fox is a Collegian columnist.  He can be reached at mgfox@student.umass.edu.

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