A presidential conversation with Issy Rushton

State of the University with Bob Caslen podcast — episode 5

President Caslen and host Sally McKay look back over the past year with Issy Rushton, who served in 2020-21 as Student Government president.


Sally McKay:  Welcome to State of the University with Bob Caslen, I'm Sally McKay, your host, and each month President Caslen and I invite you to an exclusive conversation with university students, faculty and staff who are working toward the president's bold vision for the state's flagship institution of higher education. President Caslen, hello. Happy April to you.

Bob Caslen:  Hi Sally, it's great to be with you this morning. Thank you.

Sally McKay: My pleasure. Well, President Caslen, you have some presidential company in this episode because we are joined by immediate past student body president Issy Rushton. Issy, hello. 

Issy Rushton: Good morning. How are you doing?

Sally McKay: I'm doing very well. And you have a bit of a sound of relaxation in your voice, really, since you have finished your year of being student body president. And I just want to start by thanking you for your leadership here at the University of South Carolina. Needless to say, you had a really strange and challenging year as president of the student body. And while I can't imagine you've had a lot of time to reflect yet, can you talk a little bit about how you would describe the last year?

Issy Rushton: Oh, describe the last year — that's a hard one, because, you know, how do you describe a year with so many ups and downs? I remember when I ran for this position, and I had all these hopes and dreams about what we would be able to accomplish. And one week later, after being elected, we start hearing of this virus that's coming across the world and coming to the United States. And so all our plans really were thrown out the door this year. But I think that brought a lot of triumphs in other areas that we were able to accomplish. And so, you know, boiling it all down. What was this year? It was a rollercoaster of just, you know, great emotion and great triumph, great tribulation. But at the end of it, I couldn't have been prouder to serve in this role.

Sally McKay: Well, we thank you for that. President Caslen, you and Issy were very connected during the year. And I know, President Caslen, you have really valued the input of students at the table in preparing for it, for how we would respond to the pandemic. But I know you and Issy talked weekly during her presidency, so talk to us about that relationship.

Bob Caslen: Well, at least weekly.

Sally McKay: At least weekly. That's right.

Bob Caslen: And not only with Issy, but also with the student government. Well, so we're here to serve the students. That's the bottom line. So the decisions that we make impact students, of course, they impact the faculty and staff as well. But ultimately it's about the students. So their input into the decisions we make is absolutely essential. And as we organized ourselves, we had to organize ourselves with committees that included not just ourselves in the administration, but it had to include the students and the faculty, too. So we had to be collaborative. We had to be transparent. And quite frankly, the input that we got from students was magnificent. It really helped us to understand the consequences and the unintended consequences from a student's perspective. And they were just fantastic. And on top of that, they're so connected and imaginative and the ideas of how to deal with student behavior both on and off campus, their thoughts and their input was phenomenal. And so we're very glad that we were able to to include the students. We're grateful for Issy; she was a student body president and it was her leadership that got the students involved, not only working with us, but also in some of the other student initiatives as well.

Sally McKay: Definitely. And Issy, was there ever any any pressure that you felt? Certainly serving in a very important role that includes sitting on the Board of Trustees. And for that year, did you ever get home from a day's work, so to speak, and have friends, you know, trying to get some time with you to persuade you in one way or another as it relates to the pandemic or anything else?

Issy Rushton: I think that, you know, this last year serving in this role, you know, obviously there are so many different student opinions at this university. And, you know, when I talked to other student body presidents, that's the number one thing that we talk about is how do you represent such a diverse group of students when you are the only student sitting in a room? And so to answer your question, you know, students would definitely text me, especially close friends, when they had a problem or an issue and wanted it solved. But I think that, you know, I really credit my friends in my circle for supporting me through this year. It's not easy to serve in this role. It's not easy to sit amongst administrators or the Board of Trustees. It's very daunting, especially at the start. But I've been really thankful for people like President Caslen and his administration who've really given me the voice and the platform to be heard and to have, you know, student concerns be be heard at the top.

Sally McKay: So definitely and President Caslen, I know you know what it's like to have people call at all hours and and ask for things or even just to express an opinion. Issy, let's backtrack a second and just tell us a little more about yourself. You're not from the United States, so you really brought a unique perspective, not only here to the university, but to this role as president of the student body.

Issy Rushton: I would say so. I know I sound pretty southern, but I am actually from Australia. And so, you know, I came to college and didn't know a single person. I moved myself in on the first day by myself. My family was still over in Australia, and I didn't know what, you know, the next four years would hold for me at South Carolina. But I really think that those differences in experiences and lived experiences enabled me to serve in this role this last year. To be frank, you know, I know last year was a big year for social justice, and I did not have a lot of context coming in of American history or even American social justice. And so that's something that I had to learn really fast. But that also pushed me to seek out lived experiences from other students and hear diverse opinions and really not go off, you know, my own experiences, but others. And so I think that looking back, I think the difference in who I am and where I come from and what I bring to this university came from, you know, taking that experience, seeking out other opinions and then moving forward.

Bob Caslen: If I could brag about Issy just for a second? So you just stop and think about what — who she is and what she's accomplished. So she comes from another country with a different culture, although there are some similarities. She comes to the southern part of the United States with its own unique culture, and she becomes a student body president. In order to become student body president, you have to win the trust and the hearts and minds of all the students that have to be able to believe in you and trust in you. Something that doesn't happen just because you show up. It's something that happens because you have earned their trust, you have earned their respect. And that's what Issy was able to do. And then she talked about social justice. So these are issues that are unique to the United States that she had to learn and she had to understand our culture. She had to understand both sides of it, and then she had to be able to be a leader in the midst of it. So if want to see the epitome of leadership, look at Issy Rushton.

Issy Rushton: Oh, thanks, President Caslen.

Sally McKay: I agree completely, President Caslen. Well, we can't ever remove the lens of the pandemic from the last year. And yet there were other things, as you said, is that you were able to work on with others in student government, with the student body, with President Caslen. I'm thinking about Revision 2020. You're mentioning social justice. Can you talk a little bit about that or something else that you were able to work with during an unusual year?

Issy Rushton: Yeah, absolutely. I'll definitely talk about the 2020 Revision. I think that when I look back at the last year, honestly, I think that's what I'm most proud of and what we were able to accomplish not only as students, but with administrators and with this university. So, you know, you look back to last summer, I guess it was, which feels like years ago now, and you have the murder of George Floyd. And, you know, there was protests across the country and across the world, really. And I know we had conversations, President Caslen, about diversity and inclusion on campus and making sure that we could push the university forward. And so I know a diverse group of students came together. We were on a Zoom call one day — I think we were on the call to like two a.m. There was about 20 of us putting this 2020 Revision together, which was a revision of a group of students who also put forward demands in 2015 that were not accomplished in that year. And so we came together to revise those demands, see what had been completed, see what had not been completed, which was the majority of it, and put together, you know, this concise document to present to administrators and President Caslen, I remember emailing President Caslen and asking if we could meet with you to talk about diversity and inclusion and moving forward. And you jumped at the opportunity, as you always do. And we were able to present that to you. And I have been so thankful and so inspired to see the action that has truly come of that 2020 Revision movement because, you know, I guess looking back to 2015, you know, most of those demands or action items weren't completed. And then in one year we've gone forward and we've completed all of them, including revisions and additions. And so I think that just shows the power of student voice here at USC — that there is power in going to administrators and working collaboratively to see real change at our university. These aren't points that are performative by any mechanism. It's definitely concrete points that are going to change this university for the better for decades, hopefully. And so that's what I've been most proud of the last year and something that is, you know, non-COVID related, but we've really been able to triumph through.

Bob Caslen: So putting this in perspective, Revision 2020 originally came out in 2015. And as you said, in the five years that it was already out, there was nothing that was done to it. And then she, Issy's leadership, reimaged it and resubmitted it, and then we put the right organizational structure behind it and we have completed it to include organizational culture and financial attributions that go into the revision itself. So we have just rolled that out with Issy. We just rolled it out here recently. And if any of our listeners haven't seen that, please go on the web page. You'll be able to find it or we'll get it to you. But you ought to really take a look at what their Revision 2020 is all about. And thanks to Issy and Hannah's leadership, we were able to get that thing out.

Sally McKay: And Hannah is Hannah White, who served as student body vice president alongside you and others, Issy, in the student government. Just to the benefit and for the benefit of all of our listeners and again, sc.edu is the university's website. You can just do a quick search for Revision 2020. But for those who aren't familiar with it, Issy, can you give us some of the points that are that are in that plan?

Issy Rushton: Yeah, absolutely. So it is a six-step plan and going off the top of my head, I don't know if I can name all six, but we're going to try. So one is providing multicultural space on campus for students. You know, there's currently an office in Russell House, but we want an extension of that. Another point is adding more academic requirements surrounding diversity and inclusion so classes that will fulfill the Carolina Core for students. And so I know that we've been working with the Faculty Senate to try and make sure that the Carolina Core can be revised in the future and add more requirements in there.

Sally McKay: And Carolina Core, if I can interrupt, just really, that is the core of the curriculum that most all students have to take a certain amount of core curricula in common, right?

Issy Rushton: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, I'm also a tour guide at the university and we always talk about the Carolina Core. And I think, you know, amongst college students, you know, especially at USC, you're you're taking all those general classes. And so it's so important to have requirements in there that allow our students at our university to explore topics they've maybe never heard of before or explore topics that they don't have a large depth of understanding in. And so I'm really excited to see that come to fruition in the next few years. Another point is working with the Office of Pre-Professional Opportunities to allow minority students to go to professional school or wherever their heart desires after their four years or more at South Carolina. And so that's been an incredible opportunity to see students, to see, you know, money and time be invested in that realm as well. Another point is the working with the Presidential Commission on University History, which, you know, I sit on alongside my vice president —  well, my previous vice president now! And we both sit on that commission still. And it's been incredible to see the work that they're accomplishing. And I know everyone's working tirelessly every single day to review those buildings and see real change come to fruition through renaming, you know, racist buildings on campus. Trying to think off the top of my head of the others.

Sally McKay: Well, and those are such important pieces of that plan. And in our last episode, we did talk about the commission and President Caslen and I were joined by Val Littlefield and Elizabeth West and Harris Pastides. And we did talk about the difficult work, the important work and the complicated work of that commission. We thank you for your service on the commission. And President Caslen, that work continues. And so there's there is a lot of work still to do. But I think Revision 2020 is  really going to just set a new bar for us.

Issy Rushton: Right. And I think that, you know, that just showed that students really were behind this effort. And I know that I think this was President Caslen's first task when you came to the university, if I'm not mistaken, to start that commission. And so, you know, you have full student support behind it. And I know that when I come back in 20, 30 years, I'm sure I'll be back sooner than that, that I'll be able to see, you know, the work from that commission and the 2020 Revision really be seen.

Sally McKay: Yes. Well, let's take a moment and at least ask you what's next. You seem relaxed right after a busy year and you've got big plans coming up.

Issy Rushton: Yes. So I completed being student body president a few weeks ago. Since then, I have been hanging out with friends, going to the gym — President Caslen would like that one. Yeah, and relaxing. But I'm very excited that next year or later this year, I'll actually be heading to my third continent, which will be England or the U.K. to attend the University of Cambridge and get my masters in criminology. So it's an absolute dream come true to be able to attend Cambridge. I'll miss South Carolina more than anything, but I'm excited for my next journey over in England.

Sally McKay: So she's off to Cambridge, President Caslen. And, who knows, maybe we'll get her back one day.

Bob Caslen: Oh, that would be great. She's always welcome. She always has a home here, for sure.

Sally McKay: That's right, and a criminology master's program in Cambridge, England. You've studied psychology and criminal justice or criminology here.

Issy Rushton: Yes. And so I always say, you know, when I first came to South Carolina, I was just a psych major. I thought I was going to be a psychologist. I thought I was going to go to grad school for psychology. Turns out that couldn't be further from the truth because I ended up adding criminal justice to my major and absolutely fell in love with it here. I fell in love with how my professors teach. I love how the students in my program and what I were able to learn. And so, you know, going to get my masters in criminology, it's definitely a leap. But I'm excited to really get integrated in that field with the kind of pursuit of going into public policy one day in the realm of criminal justice and immigration. So that's the big grand plan.

Sally McKay: Well, I've always imagined that we're going to sit back and watch you and watch your career take flight. And I know it will be nothing but spectacular. Issy, can I ask you if there's anything that you can even articulate now about your time here at the University of South Carolina, certainly the last year, and your leadership that will inform how you approach the next step of your of your life and your life in England and pursuing your masters?

Issy Rushton: It's hard to put into words truly, because, you know, I look back at who I was when I ran for president and I look at who I am now. And honestly, it's a completely different person. I mean, I'm the same me, but I think that there are so many ways that I have grown and I have learned this year. I have figured out how to be more confident. I have figured out how to represent a lot of diverse opinions, as we were talking about earlier. You know, and I definitely haven't perfected it, but I've definitely grown in that area. I'm somebody who, you know, knows what they want to do in the world now. Hopefully we'll see if I change my mind, but at this point, I know what I want to do. And so I've been really proud of the community that I've built in South Carolina. People like President Caslen and other administrators, my fellow students and faculty members, I know I have a support system that I didn't know I always needed. And so this year I have just grown and changed in so many ways. It's so hard to articulate that growth because I think you need another five years before I can truly reflect back and see how I changed. But I'm definitely a better person because I served as student body president. I'm a better person because I attended the University of South Carolina, and I'm so proud to have the support system that I built this past year moving forward with me to Cambridge and to England.

Sally McKay: Well, President Caslen, she she might be a chapter in your your next book on leadership. I don't know.

Bob Caslen: Yeah, she's a great case study, you know. Well, you know, one thing we haven't talked about that she deserves a lot of credit for. And our success in the pandemic is really attributed to student behavior. And the person that really has had such an impact on student behavior is Issy Rushton with her I Pledge Columbia campaign because we knew that student behavior was going to be the the greatest risk issue, particularly student behavior off campus. And how we were going to have to get after that in a positive way was what Issy was all about. So maybe she can kind of mention or talk a little about. I want to jump in here but if you could talk a little bit about what you did in the I Pledge Columbia campaign, why that was so important and what the impact was on the student behavior, which really allowed our university to stay open as a result.

Sally McKay: And we're still pledging Columbia, right? I'm sitting here with my laptop — I've got my I Pledge Columbia sticker here and on my phone. So, yes, remind us about that and how it is present tense. Not not just past tense.

Issy Rushton: Absolutely. So I remember going back to last summer. It seems like last summer was just a rollercoaster of it all, wasn't it?  You know, I had just been elected. I was thrown in to suddenly all these calls online called FPG calls, Future Planning Group calls. I barely knew anybody. I'd met President Caslen maybe a handful of times. And suddenly, you know, I was representing students in a global pandemic, which comes with a lot of, let's say, stress. And I saw this great need for, you know, student experience on campus and coming back. We were working so hard on making sure that we could test students, that we could provide supplies for students like masks and hand sanitizer. But, you know, I knew and I know my fellow students knew as well that it really was going to come down to student behavior and what students decided to do when they came back to South Carolina. And so that's how, you know, the I Pledge Columbia campaign was born. It was actually it actually started in a meeting with President Caslen and I. We were talking about, you know, student behavior. And I was like, well, what if I start a campaign? And I was like, it could be something along the lines of, like, I pledge something. And that was how that campaign became, you know what it was because after that, really, we shot into action. And I talk to, you know, so many different departments on this campus over the summer. So it wasn't just talking to students, it was talking to people across housing, people across facilities. I remember one time I was on a call with, like, 80 faculty, staff and administrators talking about what we were going to do and what we were going to accomplish.

Issy Rushton: I met with over 200 student leaders on our campus over the summer asking them about what they wanted to see in the campaign, what they thought students were going to do when they came back, and how we can mitigate any risks and really help students to understand that they did have a responsibility when they came back to Columbia to keep each other safe, to follow the guidelines and to do the right thing so we could have an incredible student experience on campus. And so, you know, it really developed over that summer. I think we launched it like the end of June. And we sent out, you know, there was a flyer sent out to students. We did a social media campaign where we reach, you know, thousands of people across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. I know President Caslen did some videos. I made some videos. Those were incredible. And I think we were really able to achieve what we set out to do, which was to, you know, help students understand that they had a responsibility in the fight against COVID-19 and that, you know, the university was bringing students back and we were going to be here. But that didn't mean that they could go out and do what they did in the past. They had to keep their neighbors and their community and their friends safe. And that was through, you know, safe testing, through masking up, through social distancing, through doing all the right things. And, you know, we're sitting here today and, you know, in Osborne on campus, we're still here. And I think that comes from, you know, a collaborative effort amongst, you know, Future Planning Groups to have all the back end and then students to doing the right thing to keep their community and their college safe.

Sally McKay: Definitely. And even the name of the campaign, you know, I Pledge Columbia — the university is Columbia. We don't have a gate that walls us all from from the city. And really the vision of that just speaks to the partnership of town and gown.

Bob Caslen: Well, that's another aspect to the campaign, because it was just not contained on the campus itself. It was I Pledge Columbia, which means we had to partner with the city of Columbia and the mayor of Columbia. So another credit to Issy. She reached out to the mayor of Columbia and got the mayor to be able to be a partner in this campaign. So it was just not her efforts on the campus. It was her efforts for the entire city.

Sally McKay: That's right. And Steve Benjamin, the mayor, was wonderful to bringing his own personality and energy to that. And certainly he is a double alum of South Carolina, undergrad and law school. And we appreciate that because that campaign is still happening, as we said. And we see those stickers. We see them on on pavement. We see them everywhere, especially in the downtown Columbia area, because we we are still pledging Columbia.

Issy Rushton: We are. And I think we'll continue to, you know, until this pandemic is truly over. And I hesitate to use the word 'over' because who knows when that's going to happen. But, I think, you know, there's still this push for students to do the right thing on campus and make sure that they're still keeping others safe. There's definitely mechanisms like monthly testing now that are so important. But, you know, this will really continue on and hopefully leave a legacy until the pandemic is whenever that is.

Sally McKay: That's right. That's right. Well, we have a new student body president now, Alex Harrell, and we hope to talk with him sometime in the future. And he's certainly off and running. I'm just curious, Issy, what advice do you send out to Alex and to to all student leaders who are leading organizations in all kinds of facets of leadership and service? What's your advice?

Issy Rushton: And, you know, I could give probably — I could write a whole book and maybe I will one day write a whole book about advice and serving as student body president. But, you know, reflecting on my term, my biggest advice to Alex was to listen to others, to listen to their opinions, their stories, their lived experiences, because you are one person representing so many students. And that goes for student leaders representing organizations of 20 members to, you know, a student body president who represents, you know, an entire campus, plus more on the Board of Trustees. And so my advice overarchingly was just to listen, because, as I said, you're one person and your lived experience is so different to every other, every other person's lived experience. And so I found value this past year in just sitting down and grabbing coffee with somebody that I'd never met before, going to an organization visit online and just talking to students about what they wanted to see and what they were passionate about, what their concerns were. And so I always say, you know, go out of your way, meet people where they are, meet people and different areas that maybe you've never experienced before and take all of that and represent to the best of your ability.

Sally McKay: President Caslen, I'm going to put her future book on my shelf right next to your book that's on on my shelf, sir. And we just can't thank you enough.

Bob Caslen: Well, you know, if you want look at leadership and what leadership is all about, she can write the book for sure. Alex certainly is — he's a credit to himself and the fact that he was selected really says a lot about him and the potential that he has. He's going to be a great president. He's obviously learned a lot from Issy and others that have gone before him. But Issy is — you know, I think Issy's tenure as the president, given the pandemic and how we as a university have persevered through the pandemic, is going to be her legacy. And, now, she may not like that, but that obviously that will be tagged on all of us as far as the pandemic is concerned. But in my opinion, her real legacy is going to be the hearts and minds of our students who were able to get an education here, who otherwise would not have because we stayed open and we were able to bring students back here. And they may not attribute it to Issy, but in the in their heart of hearts, they really know that there was leadership behind all of that. And Issy Ruston was the one that made all that happen.

Sally McKay: Well, we're grateful, I'm grateful to both of the presidents whom I'm sitting with right now and appreciate this time, Issy,with you and as always, with you, President Caslen. And thanks to all of our listeners. I'm Sally McKay, your host of State of the University with Bob Caslen. Bye for now and forever to thee.

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