Krista Hershfield | Mustang News Credit: Zach Donnenfield | Mustang News

An influx of women have been elected to U.S. Congress and San Luis Obispo’s government, where four out of five council members are female. This trend has trickled down to student leadership at Cal Poly, where six out of the last eight Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) presidents have been women.

Even though this trend might seem new, there has been a trail of women who started their political careers with ASI and have paved the way for others to march the same path. 

Women as ASI President 

Rose Dunn, 1980

After nearly 40 years of all male ASI presidents at Cal Poly, the first woman took office in 1980. At Cal Poly, Rose Dunn advocated for student rights. At the time, Dunn said, the right to have alcohol on campus was her main concern. Whether her campaigning for student rights was successful or not is hard to gauge — but, you can buy a beer on campus now.

Dunn credited her time as ASI president with helping mold her into an effective leader.

“It was an amazing opportunity to really have leadership in a variety of areas,” Dunn said. “It prepared me to take on different positions throughout life.”

“It prepared me to take on different positions throughout life.”

Dunn has since gone on to become the Assistant Superintendent of Personnel for Las Virgenes Unified School District in Los Angeles County. In 2018 she was named the Negotiator of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators.

“I encourage all students to get involved in student government,” Dunn said. “Because it is those kinds of experiences that really do prepare you work and the world.”

Kristin Hultquist, 1993

Before former ASI president Kristin Hultquist helped found HCM Strategists in Washington, D.C., a company that deals in education and health policy issues, she was an All-American track athlete at Cal Poly. 

“I’ve made a career out of  politics and higher policy,” Hultquist said. “It turns out I was pretty good at it. But I didn’t look like it.”

Kristin Hultquist wasn’t a traditional ASI presidential candidate; she was a first generation student on a pell Grant and was not involved in Greek life. To top it off, she would only be the second woman president. Rather than hindering her, Hultquist said those differences were instead what made her an effective ASI president.

After the Poly Royal riots of 1990, when Hultquist was a freshman, she was able to help mend the town-university relationship as ASI president. She reinstalled homecoming, with a plan to allow the city to see that students could come together again without getting violent. She also established a student fee that helped build the Recreation Center. Five years later, future ASI president Erica Stewart would see Hultquist’s fee pay off with the finishing of the Recreation Center.

But it all took sacrifice.

“To me, it felt like a full-time job,” Hultquist said.

“To me, it felt like a full-time job”

She had to drop classes to keep the workload manageable. Rushing to perpetual meetings, multitasking and more made the designated “ASI President” parking spot hardly a necessity, not a luxury. Not to mention, there were no iPhones or Blackberries in sight. But Hultquist’s hustle mentality allowed her to sharpen her skills and propel her into a career of politics and higher policy.

Hultquist went on to get a degree in public policy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. After, she worked for the Secretary of Education and National Governors Association. She also found HCM Strategists in Washington, D.C., a company that deals with education and health policy issues.

“I really did learn at ASI how to just run incredibly fast juggling multiple things,” Hultquist said.

Carolyne Sysmans | Mustang News

Erica Stewart, 1995

Graduate, then start a restaurant. That was the plan, at least, for former ASI president Erica Stewart. She envisioned a farm-to-table, rustic French-California cuisine type of place. Something approachable, an unpretentious space with good food, she said. But along the way, Stewart’s trajectory changed.

Stewart said cooking was fun, but it did not let her share the experience with people while they were enjoying the meal, not like student government could. Stewart wanted to see the effect she was having on people, which is where ASI came in.

“There’s a lot of people that get really involved in one aspect of clubs or greek life, or ASI, or Week of Welcome or Poly Reps,” Stewart said. “I felt like — often — one interest was always going into that position of ASI president. I felt like I was more well-rounded.”

As a student who was not part of a large college or greek life, Stewart brought a different perspective to the ASI presidency — the type of outlook that almost led Stewart to open a restaurant so she could feed people and positively affect their lives.

Stewart helped bolster the Student Neighborhood Assistance Program (SNAP), which commonly responds to noise complaints in the city. This stymied the fines students were getting for noise complaints, with SNAP being allowed to issue students a warning before making them pay a fine.

Stewart also passed a fee for “Learn By Doing” when people questioned the value of Cal Poly’s hands-on training for students. This helped keep class sizes down and classroom engagement up. The Recreation Center was also finished during Stewart’s term.

Stewart said ASI is a microcosm of the real world. From running meetings to working long hours and interacting with co-workers, being a part of ASI put her on the trajectory that she is on today as a San Luis Obispo City Council member.

Zach Donnenfield | Mustang News

Jasmin Fashami, 2018

Cal Poly’s current ASI president can recall a time when she felt nervous going up to speak to a room full of students at the PAC at SLO Days.

“I really thought I would be too scared to speak up in a meeting or advocate for the students,” Fashami said. 

Fashami said that after reciting her speech about forty times, she felt more confident and was able to realize that doing better in one-on-one situations was a strength of hers — not a weakness.

As ASI president, Fashami said she hopes to see more groups on campus working together. 

“I think greater cross-campus support is something I would love to see from this campus,” Fashami said. 

Local government

Aaron Gomez

While women’s representation has been slowly climbing in U.S. politics over the last elections, San Luis Obispo’s City Council took a jump. Four out of the five cabinet members of this term are female, leaving Aaron Gomez as the only male.

When asked if he felt like he needed to represent his voice differently being the only male on the council, Gomez quickly and definitively answered, “I don’t feel that way at all.”

This may be a historic council based on gender, and Gomez said he feels it was well deserved and needed.

“It’s a voice that has been underutilized in U.S. history if you look at leadership,” Gomez said. “It’s nice to see us, a community, embrace the fact that we need better women representation.”

Gomez said he felt there was another voice left out of the political conversation that he wanted to support: his own, a younger demographic. Gomez’s interest is sustainability, and it is the younger generation who will be dealing with the repercussions of how we live our lives today.

Gomez credits the recent presidential election and the divide it has caused as a catalyst for more diversity in our government.

“Let’s bring our voices to the table and all of our voices,” Gomez said. 

Krista Hershfield | Mustang News

Heidi Harmon

She strolled into her office with a smile and donned a deep pink blazer with a satin black blouse. Her eyes gleamed against rosy cheeks that matched the flower in her hair as she sat down ready to conduct business. This is San Luis Obispo’s Mayor Heidi Harmon — on a sick day.

Before she was mayor, Harmon was a single mom who provided for her kids by working as a house cleaner. She has chosen to embrace her feminine qualities in her political role. She said she believes this acceptance has helped her become the leader she is today.

“I think any type of gender can embody the feminine,” Harmon said.

Those who are in tune with their feminine side tend to be more focused on community, conversation and working together, according to Harmon. During her terms as mayor, she said she noticed the feminine in opposition to a more competitive, individualistic type of approach.

“That really manifests in different policies,” Harmon said.

One of Harmon’s most zealous policies was recognized when she was a mother and an advocate. She recognized our climate is in a crisis and wanted to fight it so her kids could have a better life. This passion has pushed her to lead her fellow Council members to set the most ambitious carbon neutrality goal of any city in the United States.

Harmon’s avid activism throughout her life not only influences her policies, but is an important factor in her community outreach. She is a big supporter of voices from any minority group and is hopeful for the future of women in politics.

“The masculine has a lot of social support to take up a lot of space, and it happens in the classroom and a lot of different spaces,” Harmon said. “We definitely see that in politics. Women have to be asked seven times [to join politics].”

Harmon encourages women to not wait to be asked seven times, but to go express issues by running for a student government position on campus or in local government. She believes the future should be full of many people running to allow for all issues to be represented.

Krista Hershfield and Kayla Berenson also contributed to this story.

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