Notre Dame Scholars serve as student body president and vice president

Author: Grace McDermott (HY '21) & Joe Andrews (Devine '21)

In a school year unlike any other, two senior scholars have been leading the way at the helm of the student body. Rachel Ingal (Brennan ‘21) and Sarah Galbenski (Scott ‘21) were elected student body president and vice president last February after an election filled with far more candidates than usual, four ticket sanctions, a postponement, and ultimately a runoff. The two seniors were excited to start implementing the platform positions on which they had run; instead, they were thrown one curveball after another from the very start of their term.

Sarah Galbenski, Rachel Ingal, and Aaron Benavides celebrate their win!

Throughout this year, they have had to take it day by day, stepping up to meet challenges that arise and readjusting their plans on certain issues that are no longer relevant. For example, dorm access and subsidized ride shares — both of which were popular platform points during the campaign cycle — don’t have much significance this year due to COVID-19, nor did the Biden-Trump debate that was supposed to happen on campus in November. But despite these obstacles, they and their team have still tried to adhere to the pillars of their original platform, including improving mental health services, advocating for sustainability efforts, promoting diversity and inclusion, and addressing sexual assault on campus. 

“We knew issue areas that we wanted to focus on, and COVID just shifted the mechanisms with which we wanted to enact those changes,” Rachel said. “We still cared about the same things, but the way we worked toward these causes looked different than the way we thought it would. And with COVID, we started to learn just how intersectional everything is.”

Almost as soon as Rachel and Sarah were elected, students studying abroad in Rome were pulled out over COVID-19 concerns, which was followed by the rest of the study abroad programs getting canceled and, shortly afterwards, the announcement that Notre Dame would be continuing virtually for the rest of the semester. One of the first issues the pair had to address was protecting international and lower-income students’ needs as everyone was getting sent home. Sarah quickly learned at this point that ninety percent of what they would work on would be what was thrown at them, and the other ten percent would be the ideas they ran on – which she took as a valuable lesson in leadership and adaptability. 

Rachel and Sarah first met in 2017 in the first-year scholars’ course, Ethical Leadership, where an amicable rivalry over their home states (Ohio and Michigan, respectively) transformed into a friendship between the two scholars, as well as with Aaron Benavides (Latino Studies ‘21), who served as their campaign manager and is currently chief of staff.

“I think Ethical Leadership surrounded us with a lot of ambitious, hardworking, brilliant people,” Rachel said. “It’s super motivating to be in this community where everyone is supporting and uplifting each other and striving for important things. It propels you to go the extra mile and take on new challenges.”

It did not take Rachel long after arriving to campus to start seeking out these new challenges.

“I was a weirdo and I got coffee with the student body president our freshman year a few weeks into school,” Rachel said. “I knew I was interested in student government and wanted to get her advice on how to make the most out of your experience here. She’s been a great mentor to me and helped me navigate my way through things.”

From there, the two scholars took very different paths toward their eventual leadership roles.  Rachel began working in student government freshman year, joining FUEL (First Undergraduate Experience in Leadership) as part of the Diversity and Inclusion cabinet. She says her time there opened her eyes to the different ways the university could be a better place, and she took her ideas further during her sophomore year as co-director of FUEL. Sarah had not yet been involved in student government, instead devoting her time to the Center for Social Concerns, the Kellogg Center, and the Kroc Institute.

“I think that was something that attracted [Rachel] to our dynamic,” Sarah said. “Rachel had more of an insider look into the institution, and I had different connections and communities. I was really compelled by her vision and our partnership. I thought our personalities suited the two different roles and I knew I would have a lot to learn.”

Rachel began seriously considering candidacy during her junior year, which was when she got in contact with Sarah, who was studying abroad in Chile at the time and came back from the Atacama Desert to a WhatsApp message from Rachel about being part of her campaign team. From there, the two began spending hours a day speaking with students on campus to create their “Triple A” platform: Advocate, Amplify, Accompany.

The scholars go through their original platform about once a month to benchmark their progress, and said that even in the constant craziness of the year, they were able to achieve some of the goals they originally set for themselves. They are particularly proud of their successful advocacy in the faculty senate for for sexual assault survivors’ rights under Title IX.

“We wanted to argue for a certain standard of evidence – a preponderance of evidence, rather than clear and convincing evidence, [the latter of] which causes the survivor to jump through more hoops and can be traumatic,” Sarah said. “The final vote was 52% to 48%, so I feel that we were able to flip the vote for preponderance.”

Rachel and Sarah also instituted structural changes among student leadership groups throughout the university to streamline communication and collaboration. They created an off-campus task force, and are in conversations about implementing policy initiatives regarding diversity and representation. One of their greatest responsibilities of their leadership tenure, Rachel said, was acting as intermediaries in the occasional communication gaps between the student body’s sentiments and the administration’s policies during the pandemic.

“Notre Dame people are so generous with their time and energy. Everyone wants to help, even people who have left long ago,” Rachel said. “A lot of us here love Notre Dame so fiercely, but see the ways we could improve it to make it a better place. I think there will be pieces of legacy that we were able to leave, even when COVID is a thing of distant memory.”