After a prolonged Student Government election riddled with internal conflict, Kevin Helgren took office last week as the new student body president. Just an hour after he was inducted, news broke of the first homicide on UT’s campus in nearly 50 years. The next few days were tough as the psychology and neuroscience major grappled with how best to represent the UT community while also grieving with it. But Helgren was up to the task.
A 2016 recipient of the Texas Exes’ President’s Leadership Award, Helgren has a palpable passion for people and the causes he supports. He spoke with the Alcalde about his goals while in office, challenging the status quo, and expecting the unexpected.
The Alcalde: It’s been quite the first week in office for you. You spoke eloquently at the campus vigil held for Haruka Weiser on Thursday. How did you approach speaking to the community during such a difficult time?
Kevin Helgren: I’d be lying if I said what happened last week was what I anticipated my first week in office looking like. Through that experience, both [student body vice president] Binna Kim and I have learned to expect the unexpected, if you will. These positions come with a lot of uncertainty, confusion, and you just have to be ready to roll with the punches.
To kind of put things in perspective, Binna and I took office at noon last Tuesday. At around 1 p.m., I received a text message informing me of the situation, and that it was my responsibility to craft a letter to Haruka’s family expressing our condolences on behalf of the student body. That was an odd first task to be given. A couple of days later, Student Government and the Senate of College Councils got together to plan the community gathering. That was really the silver lining of last week for me—that with three hours’ notice, the community came together with upwards of 2,000 people to stand in fellowship and solidarity to commemorate Haruka’s life … It was a trying week, but it was a week that really spoke volumes to our community’s willingness to come together during a particularly difficult time.
You’re very passionate and ambitious. You’re a leader within Camp Texas. You’re a member of the Longhorn Band. Was becoming student body president always a goal of yours?
[Laughs] It’s funny you should ask that. No, becoming student body president was not on my radar at all. In fact, it wasn’t something I had given any amount of thought to until last spring, when I got involved in Student Government [in college] for the first time. I had the good fortune of being elected as university-wide representative, but I had no idea what I was doing.
I vividly remember anticipating how awesome my first meeting was going to be. Then, an hour and a half later, I left [the meeting] with all sorts of emotions, but none were excitement. I feel like my first meeting kind of bogged me down with things like parliamentary procedure and the overall negative culture of the organization, so my first exposure to SG served as a big portion of my rationale for running for president. It definitely wasn’t on Binna’s radar, either. She and I are both unique in that we come with very little SG experience; we kind of represent something other than the status quo.
Speaking of challenging the status quo, your predecessors Xavier Rotnofsky and Rohit Mandapalu were Texas Travesty editors and jokesters, and they still achieved quite a bit in office. Did that affect how you approach SG?
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Xavier and Rohit and their administration and everything that they’ve been able to do during their time in office. I followed the executive alliance race pretty closely last year … and I quickly learned that Xavier and Rohit, though they ran a very atypical campaign, were people that should be taken seriously. A year later we’ve realized that they haven’t taken themselves seriously, but they’ve definitely taken their jobs seriously. They have been so helpful in the past week helping Binna and me transition into these new positions, and I think we learned a lot from them in that they delivered something that the student body was so badly craving, and that was something other than the status quo. It definitely informed the direction that our team decided to take with our campaign; we did something very different. “Share Your Story” really focused on this idea of empowering the individual.
What’s the biggest thing you hope to accomplish while you’re in office?
We’re obviously going in with a few goals, but as we’ve learned this past week, kinks are thrown into things, and you can’t exactly expect everything to go swimmingly and according to plan. In talking to Xavier and Rohit, they made it pretty clear that they went in with certain goals, but things came up that they became really really passionate about. We’re keeping our mind and options open, just because we want to make sure that we are as accessible and as wholehearted as we possibly can be.
Fortunately, we’ve gotten to deliver on a couple of [promises to the student body] already. You can split our goals up into two categories: internal change and external impact. As we’ve learned over the past few years, SG is a group of hyper-involved students helping a group of hyper-involved students. So we are really trying to make SG more relevant for a greater number of people. Binna and I have already established an ad hoc committee that … [will help bridge] the gap between the new and the old SG perspectives. That’s kind of what we’re working towards internally: culture change.
There are two big platform points externally that Binna and I are hugely passionate about. One is sexual assault on campus. Binna was part of the core group of students that brought the Not On My Campus campaign to UT. It’s something that both of us care a lot about, but something she has been pretty involved in for a long time. For me, it’s mental health. I want to get my PhD in clinical psychology and work in a clinical setting, and teach in an academic setting about mental health issues. Some of the things I’ve tried to identify with mental health are increasing the awareness of resources that are already out there for students, creating more resources for students on campus that don’t exist today, and lastly, actively addressing the stigma that comes with mental health. In sixth grade I was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, so I have been on the receiving end of a lot of pretty oppressive stigma when it comes to mental health. It’s something I care deeply about.
During your free time (if you have any to spare), what’s your favorite way to unwind?
I’ll be completely honest, I probably don’t give myself as much time as I should to unwind. I’m learning very quickly that this is kind of a full-time job. I know this sounds cheesy, but people make me really, really happy. I’m like a textbook extrovert. I [also] like reading for pleasure, and I don’t do it as often as I should. I bought a hammock last spring when I studied abroad in southern Africa, and I would hang my hammock up between two trees and read all afternoon. I want to do more of that.
Photo by Anna Donlan
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