DeRay Mckesson's 1,288 Bowdoin Facebook friends might notice something missing from campus next year.
As president of Bowdoin Student Government (BSG), president of the Class of 2007, head tour guide, and head proctor in Appleton Hall, DeRay Mckesson '07 has been a ubiquitous presence at the College. He has been involved in initiatives ranging from The Bowdoin Campaign to Judicial Board reforms to Name Tag Day. As Mckesson prepares to graduate, he sat down with the Orient and offered candid reflections on his four years in leadership positions at Bowdoin. An edited transcript of that interview follows.
Orient: Has your Bowdoin experience been like you thought it would be?
Mckesson: No! I've been involved before, but I'm intimately involved at Bowdoin with a lot of things. It's been a lot, but it's been good. I'm happy and proud of everything.
O: How do you think student government matters today?
M: I think that we are part of every important discussion that happens on campus, and the unimportant ones. The message that I always like to tell people -- this what I said two years ago in my speech to the sophomore class -- is that this is yours. This place is yours. This place exists for you. This is your school. And I think that sometimes kids come to college and forget the this-is-yoursness. I think BSG lives that.
O: Do you think that everyone in the community understands that this is ours?
M: I think they do. I think most often students don't get it. This place goes out of its way to include students in its discussions. At times, students have been willing to really be a part of that discussion. We have shown that students can do it and do it well.
O: Where would you like to see student government go from here?
M: The hardest thing with student government is continuity. The people who could do the most and could be the most influential just don't get involved, because they have this preconceived notion of what it is, and they thought it would be like their high school. I would like to see kids who are willing to buck the system. What's hard about this place is that we don't do anything bad. Everything we do is good or great. So that kills sometimes the urge to do things better, to do it the best we can.
O: There's been a lot of publicity about the Yaffe referendum. How do you think that affected BSG's credibility on campus?
M: I don't know if I worry so much about our credibility, since we had talked about it. It's not like Ian came up with it out of the blue. At the beginning of the year, I was like guys, we need to talk about eligibility. I think there's a way to account for institutional memory that isn't you having to be on the BSG. I don't think the requirement in the long term is something that we should keep. Until we find and do well with some other system of institutional memory, then I think we need it. But yeah, I don't worry about our credibility. I think people probably saw it as us being insular, but we talked about it.
O: You've been at the center of some of the biggest issues on campus over the past few years. How do you think Bowdoin can do better in the coming years?
M: It's hard to say, because being in the center I've also seen so much structural change. We have three new deans this year, which is like a shock to the system in some ways, because they are the three deans that deal most directly with student issues. I think the College can commit to leadership development in a more substantive way. I think we too often say, "Oh, everybody's a leader." I think we as a college are committed to academic advising and I know Cristle [Collins Judd] is on that. I think it would be cool if every first year had to meet with somebody in the dean's office or somebody who reported to the dean of student affairs in some capacity.
O: You mentioned the transition. How do you think the transition year has gone?
M: I think it has been a tough year. I think it was a lot. Tim [Foster] has been here for a while. I think getting used to his style and what's different was difficult at times, but I think it works. Bill [Shain] is extremely committed to the admissions process itself; the small things you see him caring about more. And Cristle [Collins Judd] is really smart, and I think she brings a fire to the job that is at times off-putting, but I appreciate it. So it's been a good year. I think there have been growing pains, but I don't think that's unhealthy.
O: You've been able to sit in on the Trustees' top sessions -- sessions that very few students are able to participate in. What was significant to you about that experience that should be significant to all students?
M: It's amazing how much the trustees legitimately care about student life. It's not a board of people who got some cushion appointment and care in some really abstract way. On the last call I was on, we talked about the Dudley Coe situation and hearing the doctors on the board give their comments, that back and forth, is important. They are really involved, and I think students should care more about getting access to them.
O: We've talked about the administration, the College as a whole. Is there something that students can do to make this an even better place?
M: Two things. I've found that students can be unwilling to take risks and have an unwillingness to be uncomfortable. I worry sometimes that we talk about the Bowdoin bubble, and we're like, "Oh, the Bowdon bubble." I think it's real, but I think that sometimes we feed into it in a way that isn't healthy.
O: Is breaking out of that the responsibility of students or college officials or both?
M: I think both, but again, we live this. I think there has to be some ownership. This isn't boarding school, this isn't high school. You need to take ownership of making this place what you want it to be. So it's hard for people to be like, "Oh, Bowdoin, I'm not happy." It's like well, this is yours. You can start a club, you can talk to Barry [Mills] if you're upset -- when he's here -- you can talk to him, you can e-mail him.
O: As Bowdoin's stature rises, and you've been a tour guide and now head tour guide, what's the most interesting thing that students coming here to look at Bowdoin know about or have questions about?
M: When I first started there were a number of people who saw us as a preppy school. And that's died over the years, which is really cool. What we have talked about as tour guides is that everybody is happy in some capacity. And I think people who come here on tours buy into the happiness. And it's hard for some people, because they think it's fake, they're like, "You cannot be happy. This is not real."
O: You don't think it's fake?
M: No, I don't think it's fake at all. I think at times it's overwhelmingly real. And I think families see that now. People touring are so stressed -- we are like school 14 that they're visiting. It's very different from when we were applying.
O: Where are you going from here?
M: I'm going to Teach for America in New York City at an elementary school. The thought that my students will be excited about getting stickers is pretty awesome.