“How is it possible that at a renowned institution like UCSD, students are finding themselves both food and housing insecure?”
Lesly Figueroa, the Student Manager at the Triton Food Pantry, has been asking this same question for more than two years. The Pantry was created in 2015 to serve food insecure UCSD students and Figueroa strongly believes that if students are food insecure, they cannot be successful in their academics. She referenced the 2016 UCUES Survey, which shows that five percent of students “very often” skipped meals because there wasn’t enough money for food.
“No matter if it’s one percent or two percent, the fact that students have need that’s what we have to be addressing,” said Figueroa. According to the survey, only 32 percent of students at UCSD have “never” skipped meals.
Figueroa, an Urban Studies and Planning and Global Health double major, is running as the presidential candidate on Students Determined, a slate of self-described “truly genuine PROGRESSIVE leaders,” for the 2017-18 Associated Students (AS) election season. She is running on a platform which includes issues such as increasing the transparency of AS, expanding basic needs resources, supporting access and retention, and taking a holistic approach to parking and transportation.
“The AS president has many roles,” Figueroa said. “One that I really want to showcase is empowering other student leaders.” She also contends that the job of AS President is to hold senators and other executives accountable, to ensure that they’re following through on the things they talk about. She also believes that working collaboratively with her staff is crucial to being a successful President.
As a basis for her entire platform, Figueroa feels that the work that she aims to do is grounded in work that is already being done by members of Students Determined who were elected last year. “It really reflects upon our slate and what we do,” she said.
“That’s something I really want to come across, how we can work as a team,” Figueroa said. “I think that’s one of the most important things an AS president can do. I think it’s something the current AS president has done, and it’s something we can continue to do.”
Figueroa believes that access and retention should be central to the work of her slate, when discussing a variety of topics, whether it be basic needs, academics, or community involvement.
“Access and retention is a very holistic, all-encompassing work of Students Determined,” Figueroa said, noting that many factors, ranging from transportation to having to worry about basic needs, can impact a student’s ability to access an education.
“If you’re basic needs aren’t being met, you sometimes won’t be academically successful,” Figueroa said. “It could impact being retained at the institution … if that cycle is stopped for some reason and your basic needs are being met, then you will be retained at this institution.” She’s passionate about expanding the Triton Food Pantry, and proud that it’s a student-run program that can provide food and toiletries.
“This is like my life work,” Figueroa said.
Figueroa said she would bring other experience to the presidential office beyond her two years at the Triton Food Pantry. She currently serves as the Associate Vice President of Environmental Justice Affairs, and she has previously sat on Muir College Council in the appointed role of Food Insecurity Advisory Committee Representative. She’s also an RA in the Village, was a Muir Discussion Leader for First Year Experience, and has been a member of various committees, including the committee on the university’s Long Range Development Plan, the Basic Needs Committee, and the Advisory Committee on Sustainability.
Students Determined as a whole intends to work with UCSD student leaders, in order to take all kinds of student voices into account. Figueroa, who plans to meet regularly with top university officials in her role as President, hopes to carry the opinions of those students.
“When you talk to Chancellor Khosla or when you talk to the VSCA (Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs), for the most part, they want to know about other students,” Figueroa said. “They’re like ‘what do other students think?’ So we’re reaching out to the communities to be like, ‘what do you want to tell Chancellor Khosla and what do you want us to advocate for?’”
For Figueroa, this is connected to transparency and the importance of informing students about the role of AS
A native of the city of Coachella, Figueroa is proud of her hometown. She has worked in the community as part of “action teams” which endeavored to build a healthier city. These teams worked on transportation and education and Figueroa believes that could be a model for how to approach campus planning.
“I want to change the narrative around campus planning,” Figueroa said. “If we do want to view this institution as a city, then let’s get the students involved in community work. What do they really want to see?”
As the Associate Vice President of Environmental Justice Affairs and in her other role as a Carbon Neutrality Initiative Student Engagement Fellow, Figueroa has worked on initiatives like the creation of the UC San Diego Sustainability Ambassadors Program. The program provides resources for six volunteer peer education ambassadors to discuss topic areas like climate change, food systems, public/environmental health, waste/recycling, renewable energy/green technology, and facilities management.
Figueroa said she plans to take her understanding of sustainable practices and campus planning to her role as President, if elected. The university’s official goals call for the campus to be zero waste by 2020, and carbon neutral by 2025, though the campus remains far from that goal – in the 2015-16 school year, it still sent 280 of waste per capita to local landfills.
On the topics of parking and housing, Figueroa is invested in the idea of a “rooted university,” and cares about grounding UCSD in local affairs.
“The reality is that parking is going to get worse. That’s the reality,” said Figueroa. “But we do have to think about how are we going to mitigate that. We need to think about alternative transportation.” She wants to increase public transit options in negotiations with MTS, and start a bike-sharing program on campus.
She was also involved in the University Community Planning Group near the end of the 2016-17 school year and the beginning of this year.
“For me, that put a big perspective on where we are with our housing,” Figueroa said. “Like, what does housing look like for us, but also, what does housing look like to the community?”
Figueroa thinks it’s not only crucial for student government to consider the misconceptions students have about campus resources, but also the misconceptions the local community might have about student needs. She said that common sentiment heard at the Advisory Community Group were statements like “students take all of our parking” and “students are using UTC to park for free.” But Figueroa thinks that with the proper context, we can bridge the gap between students and the local community.
“We’re students… we also live here,” she said. “We shouldn’t be seen as a burden.”
The 2017-18 AS elections are scheduled for April 10 through 14. Polling stations and online voting will close Friday at 4 p.m.
Jaz Twersky is the Opinion Editor at The Triton. Gabe Schneider contributed reporting to this story.