E. J. R. David Ph.D.

Unseen and Unheard

No, I'm Not "Good"

UW's Student Prez reflects on being a leader, a woman of color, & mental health.

Posted May 01, 2017

Daniele Mempin Meñez, a senior at the University of Washington and the first Filipina and Pacific Islander President of Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW), reflects on her experiences as Student Body President during a year of tremendous political, cultural, and societal turmoil.

Daniele Mempin Menez. Taken by John Robyn Buenavista
Source: Daniele Mempin Menez. Taken by John Robyn Buenavista

“She only got elected because she’s a brown girl, right?"

“A diversity commission director becoming President? That just doesn’t happen. It shouldn’t. She won’t know what she’s doing. She hasn’t been on the Board of Directors before. She’s not even from this continent.”

“Those activists don’t know how to get anything done. That’s all they’re good for, yelling and screaming outside. Watch her take office and see what happens.”

“She’s not a real activist. She’s not one of us. She’s Filipino - she’s a model minority.”

The story below is a raw, honest account of my experience as Student Body President for the University of Washington in a year of tremendous political, cultural, and societal turmoil.

One of the first Western norms I discovered when I moved to continental America for college was the “How are you doing?” conversation starter followed by the automatic “I’m good, how are you?” After a while, it was ingrained in me too. I’m good. Even when I felt like I was deteriorating inside, I was good.

But in the last few months, I stopped saying it. Because I wasn’t good. I was so far from it. In May of 2016, I had just survived a traumatic experience: the most competitive ASUW elections cycle in history, filled with public scrutiny, forums & debates, hours of tabling, campaigning, UW policy research, and more. When I was elected, I was ecstatic. But as the first Filipina and Pacific Islander in this role, I also felt the weight of what was at stake. I was about to manage a $1.2 million nonprofit and represent 45,000 people. And I was so scared.

Because it was such a competitive and publicized election, I knew that all eyes would be on me as I took on this role. And some of them wanted to see me fail. As someone whose background was in activism and social justice, I didn’t fit the traditional “ASUW President” mold. I felt an especially strong pull to prove those people wrong, and to show the people who elected me that they didn’t make a mistake in doing so. Most importantly, I wanted to leave this office in a year knowing that I had given everything humanly possible to this work.

But a huge part of me was also naive. I had traveled 6,000 miles and moved here from a tiny island village in Guam & from rural rice fields in the Philippines. I spent 15 years in an extremist religious cult that oppressed women & taught me to stay silent. I was financially independent, working 2 jobs at a time to put myself through college, only seeing my family once a year. I had survived those things. So my pride thought that this ASUW thing couldn’t be that bad, right? I was so wrong.

“So what do you even do? Do you even do anything?”

For some reason, I thought that I could take 21 credits a quarter while working 30-40 hours a week.

I look at my Google Calendar for the week and I am overwhelmed. There are questions that go through my head like clockwork every hour, the only way I can keep myself in check.

From 8am to 2am, a million thoughts and emotions run through me as I run from meeting to class to meeting to class to event to meeting. In class, I fidget as I just now begin to process the intensive policies & issues I discussed 3 meetings ago. I can’t pay attention to the lesson plan we’re talking about. Am I doing enough? Am I letting this position get to my head? 10 new emails. My head is dizzy, scrambling to learn about billions of dollars in budgets and read 20-page reports on issues that will affect tens of thousands of people. Keep it together, Daniele. In minutes, I have to go into a room full of executives and speak on an issue I know next to nothing about, while they’ve spent careers working on it. “I don’t understand why the students are protesting this. You need to explain this to them.” 20 new emails. I walk back to my office and am bombarded by issues that came up in the hours I was gone. I forgot that while I was out in meetings, I left behind 65 employees and 23 entities. Keep it together, Daniele. “Why haven’t you replied to my email yet? Administration isn’t doing anything. Can’t you make them understand what students are feeling? You need to fight for us.”

30 new emails. Am I staying humble? Am I staying true to myself? 2 calls. One from a community member who’s furious I didn’t reply to their email yet. Another from a student who had a personal emergency come up. I missed both of their calls. Am I losing touch with students? Am I making sure they’re at the center of everything I do? In another meeting, I struggle to focus on the policy we’re discussing because I’m holding in tears. Tears that are trying to come out after a previous meeting with a student who told me that they were in an emotionally abusive relationship. “This is what I’m going through. Heck, call administration and tell them this isn’t okay. UW isn’t doing enough for me. This place is a living hell. I need you to do something about this, please.”

I finally get back to my office and close the door for 10 minutes. I just need to cry. I just need to let it all out. Don’t forget who you are, Daniele. Don’t forget what you ran on and why you ran. This is not about you. Suck it up, suck it up. So many students need you. I wipe the tears away, take a deep breath, and open the door. There are 3 students who’ve been waiting outside to talk to me.

The day is finally over. I’m exhausted. I feel like 10 years have gone by. I walk home and scroll through Instagram, feeling like I’ve missed the world turning while I’ve been at work. I see pictures from my dad’s birthday, which I missed. Another family event I can’t be there for. I wish I could hug my parents right now. Guam and the Philippines seem so far. I’m so tired. I don’t think I can do the homework that’s due tomorrow. I don’t want to reply to the 60 new emails that I got today, each with a different request and issue. But this is not about me. It is about students. The incredible peers I have the honor of serving. I can’t let them down. Everything is heavy. But it’s okay, Daniele. You can do this. Your community is relying on you. You’re good. You’re good. If anyone asks, you’re fine.

“How could you let Milo come here? It’s your fault that someone got shot.”

Daniele Mempin Menez.
Source: Daniele Mempin Menez.

Being ASUW President has been one of the most isolating experiences of my life. In one space, I’m with administrators, often the only student in the room as I fight to uplift the voices of 45,000 of my peers. In another space, I’m with students, representing the “administrator” side because I’m the student who knows what’s going on behind the scenes. In every space, I always seem like the outsider.

I will never forget the summer before my term when my advisor told me to prepare for the unexpected. She recounted stories of Student Body Presidents who had detailed plans for the year, only to be hit sideways by realities like 9/11 and controversial presidential elections. I laughed and told her that we had nothing to worry about. I ended up serving as Student Body President in one of the most politically tumultuous, difficult years that UW has seen in decades.

I still remember the exact moment I found out that Donald Trump would be our next President. Or the day that Milo came to campus. Both took place later in the night after I got home from work. I got so many calls. Each from students who demanded that I step up and do something about this. “What are you going to do now that Trump is elected? Students don’t feel safe. You need to do something. You have to step up. If something bad happens, it’s all your fault.

I cried for hours those nights. Not just because of Trump. But because it was in those moments that I realized that to so many people, I wasn’t Daniele. I was just the ASUW President. I didn’t feel safe, either. Did they forget that I too was a young woman of color in America? I haven’t processed this in my own mind yet, how could I possibly do something for 45,000 other people? I was doing all I could, but it never seemed like enough. I lost count of how many times I heard, “You don’t have the right to feel that anymore, you’re Student Body President. Stop complaining.

It was as if this position had erased the fact that at my core - at the very essence of my being, I was just a 21 year-old Filipina struggling to survive in white spaces. I was just a college girl who wanted to go home and see her family, speak Tagalog again, and forget the rest of the world existed. Being a woman of color facing sexism, racism, and discrimination was exhausting. Trying to navigate through spaces that weren’t created for me.

The best part of this job has also been the hardest - talking to students.

Hearing their most intimate, personal stories as they recount their experiences: Getting denied from their major yet again. Failing a class they need to graduate. Facing the risk of being homeless tomorrow night. Not having enough money to eat. Sitting there as they cry in my office, ending the conversation with the same question, all the time. “What can you do about this? Please, do something about this. You’re the student who needs to fight for me.”

I’d get nightmares at night, almost as if I relived the stories I’d heard. The pain, anger, confusion, and fear. Even when I closed my eyes, I’d see it. I’d remember all of it. I didn’t know if it would ever go away. It hurt so much. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweat & tears, remembering deeply traumatic experiences that students shared with me hours before.

Whether I’m awake or asleep, the wheels are perpetually turning in my head. How can we save students money in this area? How can we make them feel safer here? If I advocate for this, will that end this problem? Is there another solution? Will this work? Will this help? I stay in my office until the early hours of the morning, studying issue after process after policy after story after.......only to open the door and realize that most students will never see it. The pain, work, and tears that it took to change this one policy or create this initiative, all for them. I get it, it’s okay. They don’t know. When something’s working, you never really see it. It’s only when it breaks down that you notice. It’s not their fault. It’s not like I didn’t say the same things about past student leaders.

But sometimes, it really does hurt. I’m fighting for them. Uplifting their voices in spaces where half of the people look at me like I’m a little kid. Or like I’m just the brown girl who got elected only because I am brown. And then going back out to the student body after 6 hours of meetings & hearing the very people you’re fighting for saying things like You’re not doing anything. Why hasn’t this changed yet? Yeah it’s great that you did this, but that’s not enough. I want this now. You’re not moving quickly enough. Trying to explain to my immigrant family, from 6,000 miles away, why I’ve lost so much weight. Why I’m so tired, why I’m working all the time. And hearing, “What is ASUW again? Is this even worth it? Will it get you a job after graduation? You should be a doctor or a lawyer.”

I needed help.

Daniele Mempin Menez. Taken by John Robyn Buenavista
Source: Daniele Mempin Menez. Taken by John Robyn Buenavista

Throughout all of fall & winter quarter, I told myself that I was the strong, empowered woman who didn’t need help. I’m above seeing a professional. Here I was advocating for mental health access and awareness while neglecting my own in the process. Once I started being honest about how I was feeling, it helped me so much. I sought professional help and stopped acting like everything was okay. My external responsibilities & environment may not have changed, but internally, I was doing so much better.

Breaking down out of nowhere was no longer the norm. Now, all it takes is a conversation with a student to revitalize me, not stress me out. I realize, in a positive way, that this role is so much bigger than me. No one will ever truly understand or see all the work that I or other student leaders are doing. With each person I interact with, they’ll only see the tip of the iceberg. And that’s okay.

As my term winds down, I know that I have given everything I have, and everything that I am, to this role. 30 years from now, I will look back at this time in my life and still recognize it as one of the greatest years. I don’t know what my future will look like, but I know without a doubt that this experience has helped me grow enormously. This role has exposed every vulnerable part of me, poked at every possible insecurity, and unveiled every weakness. The past year has molded me into the type of leader I always wanted to be: self-aware and authentic. I have come into my own so much thanks to you, ASUW. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Somewhere out there, my successor is reading this. I am here for you. Always. When it’s 2 am in the morning and you’re alone in the office, you’ll feel like you’re drowning and like no one cares about you. I am here. I get it. It’s okay, it’s okay. Cry. Scream. Let it out. Seek professional help. You are valid, what you feel is valid - just because you are a young person in this enormous leadership role, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to feel and get hurt.

You are enough. Embrace who you are - the flaws, the insecurities, all of it. Once I did, I came into my own. It’s like I woke up and found “the leadership type” I was always looking for. It was me. The resilience, the courage, embedded and passed down from the community I had come from, the places I had lived in, the immigrant parents who had raised me. My “brown-ness” was not what was hindering me from succeeding in these white spaces. It was what saved me and helped me thrive. I did not need to suppress it. I needed to show it.

Being you - that in itself is resilience. Centuries of oppressors have tried to extinguish us. Let’s not do that to ourselves or to the others around us. Don't get caught up in activist or achievement Olympics. Let's celebrate each other first before we celebrate each other's resume & accomplishments. Stop with the “500+ LinkedIn connections” goal, the Fortune 500, the Harvard path. It’s okay if you’re on it, and it’s okay if you’re not. Just don’t let whether you’re on it or not define you.

I wrote this because I believe that is crucial for those in leadership - especially people of color - to be honest with their communities about what they’re going through. I’m not the “exceptional person of color” who can do it all, and I’m so tired of feeling like I should strive to be. Before I could be an effective changemaker, I needed to come to terms with who I was physically, mentally, emotionally. Once I recognized that I needed help - and sought that help - it redefined my year.

In a few weeks, my term will end and I’ll write another post detailing all of the positives - the amazing experiences that this role has given me. Thank you, UW. For electing me. For giving me this experience. For showing me, above all, how important it is to love myself, and people, for all that they are and aren’t.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Did you know that #1in4Huskies have been diagnosed with a mental illness? Let’s talk about how to take care of yourself, how to support a friend, and how to challenge the stigma surrounding mental illness. #1in4Huskies #StopTheStigma

DANIELE MEMPIN MEÑEZ, a senior at the University of Washington, is president of Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW). Meñez has a multicultural family background. She was born in Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and lived in the Philippines until she was 4 years old before her family settled in Guam where she grew up.