The Neal Bhakta administration is taking a stand on mental health and the health of the planet.
The student body president at the University of Minnesota Duluth had these and other issues on his mind as classes started Monday and the whirl of college life began or resumed for thousands of students, faculty and staff.
Bhakta, a 20-year-old junior from Shakopee pursuing a double major in political science and communications with a minor in Hispanic studies, sat down with the Star Tribune on campus to talk about student life at UMD.
Q: What are some of the biggest issues facing students?
Bhakta: Top of mind for me is sustainability. We're a pretty green campus but we're nowhere near as green as we could be. It's no secret the Earth is dying, and we have all these people in one place here for education, so that's a great opportunity to do more about sustainability.
One just as important issue is mental health. I want to see this campus create a culture where it's OK to talk about mental health anywhere, and where we start ending the stigma.
Q: The campus population is more diverse than the city as a whole. What kind of challenges and opportunities does that present?
Bhakta: When you get into the community and you don't see people like you, or with the same background as you, it makes it harder to be involved. So what can we do as a campus to make them feel more welcome and accepted here? Helping people feel comfortable at their home can help them feel better outside in the community.
Q: Are enough students pursuing off-campus opportunities to add to the fabric of Duluth?
Bhakta: I think there's that college-student stereotype that a lot of people in the community have, and it makes it harder for students who want to be involved. Students who do keep pushing to get involved will eventually find their way into the community, but students who don't have as many resources, don't know how to get involved — it's a lot harder for them.
We want everyone to experience Duluth. We don't want students to come here and stay on campus at all times; we don't want them to just think that Duluth is UMD.
Q: What is something you'd like to see changed at UMD?
Bhakta: I'll go back to the mental health culture. It's not something that just affects students. If enough people tackle it, we can start seeing changes.
Just talking to a counselor, even if you're not diagnosed with anything, is important. If you keep everything balled up inside then one day you're going to explode, and that is different for everyone. Sometimes it does end up with someone taking their life, and we don't want to see that here. I personally have dealt with a loss like that in my life, so it's something that means a lot to me.
Q: What is something you wouldn't change?
Bhakta: One thing I'm always celebrating about this place is the community. There's just a friendly vibe at UMD. You could talk to anyone if you really want to; it's super easy to make friends here. And the student body is very accepting.
Q: Anything else?
Bhakta: Good luck to everyone and I want everyone to have an amazing year.