Passion meets compassion: Battle of the Valleys benefactor speaks to student protesters attending Student Senate


GVL / Sydney Lim

Josh Alburtus, Staff Writer

The general assembly of Grand Valley State University’s Student Senate on Oct. 7 was met with a striking rebuke of the Senate from groups of students – but also with a message of compassion from its guest speaker.

Thursday’s meeting was scheduled to largely center around hearing from GVSU’s Battle of the Valleys benefactor and presenting them with a check for over $3,000 raised by the Senate throughout last week. But the focus quickly transformed into a public referendum of the Senate, with a large number of students participating in public comment to express what they believe has been a lack of Senate action regarding the university’s ongoing campus dining circumstances.

“There’s a lot of just sitting going on from last year that I’ve witnessed from Student Senate and the Grand Valley administration – not much getting out there and trying to help,” said Ryan Ruiz, a member of Grand Valley’s Young Democratic Socialists of America.

One sign held by a student in the gallery even read, “Aramark Serves: maggot filled meals (and) culturally inappropriate foods.”

The students converged on a common theme of distress over the university’s continued food services contract with the company Aramark. The company has been scrutinized for poor performance in acknowledgments from school districts like Chicago Public Schools, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The protesters also made mention of actions by student governments at colleges including Loyola University Chicago and Purdue University to advise ending university contracts with the company.  Such actions, they believed, justified the students’ frustration with GVSU’s Student Senate for not taking similar action.

“One parallel that I unfortunately still cannot draw is the action that these student governments are taking for their students because there has been no action on behalf of our student government,” said Alex Hicks, a member of the student body who has provided comment at several of the Senate’s general assemblies already.

Senate leadership said, however, that such action does not fall under their purview.

“Student Senate has addressed this issue by working with the appropriate university administrative figures to create the University Food Committee, as this has now become a campus dining and University issue,” Student Senate President Autumn Mueller said. “We cannot accurately depict opinions of all 25,000 students or fully represent them, as it has evolved to be a very complex issue.”

Muller said that while the  Student Senate has taken steps to address the issue, it has now become a campus dining and university issue that the Student Senate will not be taking a stance on.

But amidst the passion and dismay expressed by the student commenters, they were met with a tangible sense of understanding from the assembly’s guest speaker. Accepting the Senate’s fundraising on behalf of her organization I Understand – Love Heals that served as the benefactor for Battle of the Valleys, Vonnie Woodrick took time to speak to the students’ concerns.

“I see the passion in you all and it’s the passion that’s going to make change,” Woodrick said.

Woodrick spoke of her organization’s fight and her personal fight to destigmatize suicide and mental health and connected the fight to the plight of the students.

“The change started with me and speaking up and speaking out and sharing my story,” Woodrick said. “And that’s what all of you here are doing today so I do applaud that, and I do appreciate that.”

Although on different fronts, Woodrick seemed to feel the same commitment to change as the students.

“I want change in the way we look and view and talk about suicide and mental health illnesses,” Woodrick said.

That need for change that compelled the students to attend the general assembly similarly powered Woodrick’s effort to partner with the Student Senate. Senate Vice President for External Relations Justin Frappier, who worked closely with Woodrick to coordinate on Battle of the Valleys, said he personally felt joy at being able to work with an organization that represented unity in pursuit of change.

“Working with them was really exciting and I’m glad that we picked something that I feel like a lot of the students in other departments on campus can get behind,” Frappier said.

Despite the early narrative of the assembly, Woodrick expressed gratitude for the opportunity to partner with GVSU and spread her message.

“It validates our work, and it validates that the students are listening to what we’re saying, the students want to know what we’re saying, and the students want to talk about mental health, brain health illnesses and suicide,” Woodrick said. “My biggest passion is getting the conversation to everyday places.”

Despite weaving through the different conversations and matters at hand during the meeting, passion for change drove the night’s narrative – with Woodrick’s empathy expanding beyond her own cause to exercise compassion for the betterment of the GVSU community.

Edit 10/14/21: this story was updated with information regarding the Student Senate Food Committee.