Courtney Wheeler was sworn into the office of student body president over Zoom, wearing a suit jacket and running shorts.
An Ashland, Ky. native, Wheeler was elected to her new position in early March - the same week that Kentucky saw its first case of coronavirus, that UK lost to Tennessee in the final home basketball game and seven days before UK announced that classes would be remote for the two weeks following spring break.
Since then, Wheeler estimates she has been on over 300 Zoom calls totaling at least as many hours as she navigates her role as student body president.
Wheeler is a business management and business communications major, a concentration that made UK the only school for her when she was applying during senior year of high school.
““I have a much different track than what we’ve seen before. A lot of people when they hear student government are like ‘oh you’re poli sci, you want to go to law school’ and I’m like no,” Wheeler said. “No interest.”
A born and raised Cats fan, Wheeler remembers taking trips to the old student center as a child, remembers when John Calipari was hired and remembers coming to football games when Rick Brooks was coach - but she was the first person in her family to attend UK as a student. But since she started, five of her cousins have followed suit and joined her in Lexington.
When Wheeler ran for president, all five were able to vote for her.
“They really rallied behind me and were willing to wear blue for a picture for our social media and it was just a really unique story because it was not just me, it was my whole family,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler had not heard of coronavirus when the student body election was happening - but shortly after, students went home for spring break and Wheeler and her team had to adapt their planning to virtual collaboration.
None of her core leadership team, including Vice President Bilal Shaikh and Chief of Staff Kelly Mattingly, were in the same cities.
Wheeler said they built their whole team virtually, sending out applications online only and holding interviews over Zoom. SGA even passed a new constitution and codes while in quarantine, an event Wheeler said never happens - but was necessary so they could fill their responsibilities.
COVID-19 has changed not just the way Wheeler and SGA conduct their work, but the focus of it. Wheeler and Shaikh ran on a platform focusing on transparency, mental health advocacy and diversity and inclusion.
Wheeler said those things are still her focus, but that SGA has adapted to current needs with new initiatives like PPE funding for student organizations so students can socialize safely.
And, COVID-19 has facilitated change in some areas, like transparency. Now that SGA meetings are held virtually, they are easier to livestream - which SGA does over Facebook, and hopefully Youtube once their channel is approved.
Wheeler said diversity, equity and inclusions was one of the most important things for the university, not just SGA to focus on. This semester, all members of SGA will go through two anti-racism trainings taught by Dr. Nicole Martin, the director of Inclusive Excellence and Diverse Education.
According to Wheeler, the most important part of her job is listening to and advocating for students.
“My role isn’t to clean up messes that the university has created, my role is to advocate on what students want and make sure their voice is heard at the table, because that’s how we’re going to make change,” Wheeler said.
This year, that meant a heavy presence on workstream’s for UK’s fall reopening. At least one SGA member served on each of the 16 workstreams; Wheeler started on the student success team and on Team Blue for the reopening scenarios.
UK’s COVID-19 planning teams came up with options for four different restart scenarios, including the reopening that became the frontrunner.
“No idea was a bad idea especially in the Team Blue meetings,” Wheeler said. “They discussed ‘ok, do we only bring back freshmen and seniors’ and I was like ‘woah woah woah – the rising sophomores had their freshmen year cut short and so they didn’t have that freshmen promise that us seniors had.”
Wheeler was also on a Wednesday Zoom call for updates from every workstream along with the chairs of the staff and faculty Senate Councils, John Gent and Dr. Aaron Cramer.
At last week’s faculty Senate meeting, it was Cramer who asked Wheeler how students were feeling about lagging testing reports from UK.
““I’ll answer that question all day long,” Wheeler said, “and I’ll tell them if I don’t know and I need to go find out more information because if they’re asking for student opinions, that means students are on their mind and we need every staff member and every faculty member, especially every senior administrator, to ask that question.”
Confusion over testing numbers is one thing Wheeler said she was concerned over in the reopening, saying that the differences between the health department’s numbers and UK’s numbers is “nerve-wracking” and “anxiety-inducing” for students because they don’t know where to turn for answers.
But, she’s seeing successes on campus as well, including mask wearing and the percentage of students filling out the daily screening; according to UK’s COVID-19 reporting page, more students than staff fill out their screening every day.
“That is a proud day in the student body president’s book when we are complying better than others,” Wheeler said. “Now, I would like to still see that number grow, I’d like to see it at about 100 percent, but we’re doing it.”
Wheeler acknowledged that students are feeling stressed and overwhelmed with uncertainty this semester.
“There are still so many outstanding questions that I’m sure students have but I think A) the university probably doesn’t have the answer, B) if they do it might not be as specific as they are wanting,” Wheeler said, which is why she encourages the administration to communicate with students as much as possible.
“Eliminating uncertainty and confusion and anxiety and stress during this time while also not blasting the same thing everyday is a really hard balance, and I always told the administration, none of that less is more now,” Wheeler said. “More is more. Over-communicate.”
And Wheeler said that while change can be slow, she has seen actual change at the university since March.
“People are getting in the room saying ‘this is what we need to make change on’ and they’re actually taking action steps instead of here’s the room, let’s talk about it, let’s table it for three years from now,” Wheeler said, citing the removal of the Memorial Hall mural as an example.
UK announced in June that the mural, which depicts slavery in Kentucky, would be removed from the foyer of Memorial.
“How many years did we talk about that? I’ve been here four years. How many years have students been begging for that?” Wheeler said.
One change Wheeler and Shaikh are committed to is getting excused absences for mental health care, such as appointments at UK’s Counseling Center and VIP Center.
“if you’re physically ill, you can get a doctor’s excuse why can’t if you’re mentally feeling down or needing some crisis help, why can’t you take care of yourself?” Wheeler said. Making it happen will require a rule change in the faculty Senate, but Wheeler is committed to the project.
Mental health advocacy is personal for Wheeler, who was close friends UK student Taylor Nolan, who died of suicide in 2019.
Wheeler and Nolan met through SGA, where they both served as freshmen senators. It was the first role Wheeler held in SGA after a sorority sister helped her get involved; Wheeler said she was happy to serve alongside Nolan, especially because it was rare to have two out of the four freshmen senators be women.
Freshman senator was the first election Wheeler won, but since then she has won several more as she went up the ranks in SGA.
She won a role as undergraduate senator at large, and then ran within SGA to be chair of Appropriations and Revenues - which ended up being one of two roles she held her sophomore year; a vacancy opened up for Senate president, and Wheeler ran for and won that role as well.
Her junior year, Wheeler was Chief of Staff for former president Michael Hamilton and vice president Kat Speece, a role that has given her a familiarity and close relationship with returning SGA members.
For Wheeler, her time as president so far has been about building a team that has strengths where she has weaknesses.
“I have a lot of downfalls,” Wheeler said. “I was telling someone yesterday, Ashland, Ky. is 92 percent white and I only saw socioeconomic class as diversity. So when I came to campus I had to learn lots of things and educate myself and I continue to do so.”
Wheeler has also hired a director of graduate, professional and postdoctoral affairs to advocate for those students, a law student who “is in that world every day.”
Wheeler said that success for her is when students can just be students and not have to worry about financial, mental or racial barriers.
“That’s a huge, lofty goal because there’s a lot of challenges on this campus, there’s a lot of issues that we’re always facing,” Wheeler said. “But I want students to be students and have an opportunity to learn and to get the degree that they’re here for and not have all the barriers that a lot of students have.”
And despite the challenges of her role, despite the unexpected challenges that come from COVID-19, Wheeler said seeing students on campus this fall gave her joy. She didn’t realize how much joy until she spoke at the new student induction ceremony and drove through campus afterwards.
“I saw all these students wearing a mask, physically distant, just being on campus being students – and the amount of joy and energy I received from that, is crazy.”