From Scottsdale, Arizona, Natasha Menon knew early on that she’d want to go to college on the East Coast.
“It’s a different energy, especially in the Northeast,” she says. “It’s very lively and fast-paced.”
All it took was one visit to Penn and she was hooked. Attracted to the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics major—a unique, interdisciplinary offering in the School of Arts and Sciences—Menon also loved Philadelphia, especially for its rich history and culture.
“That was something that was very interesting to me, and important, because education extends far beyond the classroom and campus,” she says.
It didn’t take long for Menon to join, during her freshman year, the Civic Scholars Program, in which she volunteers at Moder Patshala, an educational program near campus at 44th and Market streets that assists Bangladeshi-American students and their families. Related to her innate commitment to helping the community, Menon—who hopes to go into public interest law someday—has also been part of the Undergraduate Assembly all of her undergraduate years; and now, as a senior, she is serving as the UA’s president.
Penn President Amy Gutmann meets frequently with Menon and the UA members. In fact, she met with them mid-January at Pod for dinner, discussing topics that the students are passionate about, including academic initiatives; equity and inclusion; dining, housing, and transit; student and campus life; community engagement and sustainability; and more.
“It can be empowering for all the student members to have this platform with the president,” says Menon. “It’s a more informal setting, in which students voice concerns and are able to talk about the work the UA is doing.”
Just before the UA released its mid-year report, Penn Today chatted with Menon about the student organization, why she got involved, how it has grown throughout the years, and what she hopes for its future.
47TH SESSION: The UA, founded nearly five decades ago, is, according to its website, “the elected, representative organization of undergraduates at Penn, charged with improving life for all students through funding, services, and advocacy.” Its main goal, says Menon, is to lobby to administrators and advocate on behalf of students to enact “tangible change” on campus. They focus on students’ entire tenure at Penn, as well as try to promote a positive impact for future students. “The work we are doing has been built upon by those who have come before us,” says Menon.
A GOOD FIT: Menon says she wasn’t planning on joining student government in college—she hadn’t done anything like it in high school. But she kept an open mind, and upon talking to some UA representatives after an introductory meeting, she was inspired. “They were incredible and humble, but dedicated to making Penn a better place,” she says. “They took their job seriously—it wasn’t just a steppingstone or something fun to do. They really wanted to leave campus better than how they found it, and that’s something I wanted to be part of.”
MOVING UP: During her freshman year, Menon ran as a new student representative. By sophomore year, she earned the social justice committee director title (which later morphed into the “equity and inclusion” directorship), and junior year she was the UA’s treasurer—never an easy role, but always rewarding. Now, as president, she oversees about 50 students involved in the overall UA group.
STRONG PLATFORM: Menon and Brian Goldstein, the UA’s vice president, have a particular interest in using their leadership to better create inclusivity on campus. “We really want to make sure the voices of the traditionally marginalized are being heard,” Menon says. That might mean ensuring faculty diversity, or promoting discussion workshops focused on cultural and gender sensitivity, to contribute to more inclusive classroom environments. The duo also has a major focus on transparency.
STAYING FOCUSED: The UA as a whole meets each Sunday evening for two hours, says Menon. And, then, the UA’s five committees meet separately at least once every week. The UA Budget Committee oversees the budget for all six branches of student government, and handles contingency requests. They distribute student government’s $2 million-plus to fund activities such as Spring Fling, White Papers on Education, and the core functions of many student groups.
REWARDING, INDEED: Menon says being part of the UA has been an immense honor and appreciates the opportunities she’s been afforded to help her fellow classmates thrive. Whether it is lobbying for greater space for cultural and performing arts organizations, working toward more inclusive classrooms, or even addressing concerns about deadlines for finals, Menon’s goal, always, is to make life better for students—now and for the years to come. She also appreciates the tight-knit community that the UA provides. “It really is a family, and we’re one of the most diverse groups on campus,” Menon says. “People come from all walks of life to represent their constituencies and Penn. It’s just incredible.”