Student Leadership for All
Amber Scherer ’20 brings a conservatory perspective to Oberlin Student Senate.
For the last two years, Amber Scherer ‘20 has served as a leader for conservatory students as a member of the Conservatory Council of Students . This year, she’s expanded her reach by becoming the only conservatory student on the Oberlin Student Senate , a role she hopes to use to unite students from all over campus.
Senate is the central student-governance organization for Oberlin’s student body. It advocates for student interests, ensures student participation in faculty governance, creates dialogue among students, and develops legislation to work toward student goals. Traditionally, Senate is composed of students from the College of Arts and Sciences, in part because of the ratio of college students (2,300) to conservatory students (approximately 580) at Oberlin.
For Scherer, a piano performance and psychology double-degree student from Winnetka, Illinois, the draw was the chance to serve the wider student body.
"There’s almost never a con student on Senate. Even when con students are elected, they usually aren’t able to continue with the position,” she says, noting that conservatory students more often tend to be stretched thin in terms of spare time. During the 2019-20 academic year, only one con student served on Senate: Yuetong "Cat” Chen, a first-year, international student who worked in spring as co-communications director, the position Scherer now occupies.
Scherer also sensed a longstanding divide between Senate and the comparatively newer, more informally run Conservatory Council. ‘‘I’m hoping by increasing conservatory presence on Senate, we can work toward uniting the con and college in really tangible ways,’’ she says.
In particular, Scherer praises the Senate‘s current makeup, from chair Henry Hicks ’21 to her senator colleagues.
‘‘I really like the group,’’ she says. ‘‘I met Henry over the summer. He’s brilliant, very kind, and empathetic, and I am a big fan. When I met him and, later, my colleague Owen Pazderak ’23 for Con Council stuff, it seemed like an incredibly healthy working environment, and I knew running for Senate was the right choice. It’s very diverse, and it’s mostly students of color right now. There’s such a variety of ages, majors, and perspectives—it’s a wonderful community.’’
During her two years with the four-person Conservatory Council of Students, Scherer served as secretary and vice president, respectively. Now on Senate, she sought out her communications role—which sees her coordinating social media, writing the Senate Weekly email update, and leading student interactions with Senate—specifically to build a more approachable public face.
‘‘I felt that some of the personality coming through Senate accounts was very formal, and I wanted to change it,’’ she says. ‘‘I do think communications is a skill you can learn, but it’s also a personality thing. I really wanted to create a more accessible, informal Senate personality. I’ve been having senators do Instagram takeovers —the sort of thing where it’s literally a human face, and there are stickers, rather than here is the information—and I’m encouraging them to write op-eds [in the Oberlin Review]. I’m trying to associate the organization with actual people.
‘‘I want students to feel that they can reach out because there are people on the other side trying to help them. It doesn’t make sense to try to change things without asking the students what they want. What students say has everything to do with what Senate should do. I had a very strong feeling about that when I asked for the job. The senators really care about the student body, and I want to make their work as accessible as possible.’’
Scherer started by advocating for a rebranding of Senate to more clearly express its commitment to conservatory students, a marked transition from the Senate of years past. She also founded Conservatory-College Discussion Circles, a working group of students from both divisions who advance interdivisional, musical goals.
‘‘One of my goals, both personally and in my administrative work, is connecting the con and the college,’’ she says. ‘‘I wanted to start a working group to discuss ways to help people feel more comfortable cross-campus and to build a greater sense of community.’’
One of the group’s objectives is to create more discussion spaces for musicians who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC)—everyone from conservatory students to DJs at the campus nightclub, to players in the Arts and Sciences Orchestra. ‘‘There’s a lot of value to identity-based discussions because it’s something that’s actually part of you rather than about your major. I really hope these take off and that they become supportive spaces for BIPOC musicians and great opportunities for conversation.’’
Since early fall, Senate has produced a wide array of offerings to help students navigate this uniquely challenging semester. One of their biggest projects has been the ObieReal campaign that offers practical pandemic safety advice.
ObieReal is Senate’s response to ObieSafe, the COVID-19 prevention policies developed by Oberlin administration that are requirements for students, faculty, and staff on campus.
‘‘ObieSafe is great, but they say a lot of things because they have to,’’ says Scherer. ‘‘For instance, I live in a house with three other housemates, and we’re not realistically going to keep our masks on inside at all times. ObieReal tries to offer practical advice for real-life COVID-19 safety measures.’’
Senate also presented the Breonna Taylor Event —‘‘a safe space for Black women and femmes,’’ according to Senate’s Race Relations and Equity Liaison Darielle Kennedy ’22—as well as several voting-safety initiatives. During election week—a stressful time for many students—Senate brokered deals with the local bakery Blue Rooster (to provide free brownies for students) and with the downtown coffeehouse Slow Train (for drink discounts). They also organized a trivia night and a panel on self-care and mental health.
‘‘We just wanted to get students outside,’’ says Scherer.‘‘Not on Zoom, not on FiveThirtyEight—a poll analysis website—just doing your thing and not stewing in all the stress.’’
Scherer and her colleagues will continue their work in the spring semester, and she hopes to see more conservatory representation in campus leadership in the future.
‘‘Any con student interested in Senate or in Conservatory Council of Students should apply,’’ she says. ‘‘It will definitely take a bit out of you, but it can be incredibly rewarding. If you really care about helping people, there are so many opportunities to make the campus a better place for students of all identities. There‘s always room for that.’’