Meet the Candidates: Samantha Geisinger and Jorge Zurita-Coronado
The University Park Undergraduate Association, Penn State’s representative student government, is holding elections on March 29th. There are two tickets competing for President and Vice President. They are Samantha Geisinger (President) and Jorge Zurita-Coronado (Vice President), and Katie Jordan (President) and Alex Shockley (Vice President). A list of candidates running for all positions can be found at vote.psu.edu. Our profile with the Jordan-Shockley campaign can be found here.
We sat down for an interview with the Geisinger-Zurita-Coronado campaign Saturday to discuss their personal backgrounds, thoughts on their previous experiences serving in the UPUA, and details of their 2017 campaign platform.
Samantha Geisinger is a junior Biology and Psychology, Neuroscience double-major, and currently serves as the representative for the Eberly College of Science and the Chair of the UPUA’s Academic Affairs Committee, as well as the Executive Director of the Association of Big Ten Students. Jorge Zurita-Coronado is a junior Political Science major and currently serves as an at-large representative and the Vice-Chair of the UPUA’s Student Life Committee. More details on their biography, background, and campaign platform can be found at their campaign website here.
Samantha Geisinger is originally from Cape May, New Jersey, a “very, very, very small town in South Jersey.” As a student in Middle Township School District, she was one of only about “150 to 175 kids” in her graduating class: “I didn’t realize it was small until I came to Penn State. I didn’t even know that there were such things as high schools that had 1,000 kids in a graduating class.” Samantha is a first-generation college-student, and the first of her three siblings to go to college.
At Middle Township High, one of the primary avenues through which Samantha involved herself was sports. Samantha played three sports throughout her high school career, including both Winter and Spring track, soccer (she was the captain of her soccer team her junior year), and dance. Samantha also served as her school’s Sports Editor during her sophomore and junior years, and the Yearbook Editor her senior year.
Along with sports, Samantha also got involved by serving in Middle Township High’s Student Government, serving as the President of the Student Body her senior year, the director and organizer of the Relay for Life event that was held in her township, as well as an Executive Board member in the Middle Township Key Club: “I literally did everything in high school.”
Much of her leadership ability can be seen through her success in organizing Middle Township’s Relay for Life: “I, [along with my mom and sister], ended up basically putting on the Relay for Life; we raised more money than all four years before us combined. I was very passionate about doing Relay for Life. My whole life I wanted to be a Doctor. I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist, because my best friend from home’s older sister had cancer twice. She was my inspiration forever, [because] she wasn’t supposed to live past the age of 18, and now she’s 27. So medicine was always just amazing to me.”
This passion for medicine and serving others also served as one of the primary reasons that she chose to study at Penn State in the first place: “When I ended up coming here to visit for my acceptance tour, it was THON weekend,” she recalled. “I had never heard of THON before. I just saw students running around everywhere, getting ready for THON, and I was like ‘Wow, what’s THON?’ So then I left Penn State… and looked it up, and was like ‘Oh my God, this is the school for me.'”
Jorge Zurita-Coronado, who is originally from Oxford, Pennsylvania in Chester County, described his and Samantha’s background as “very similar, in many different aspects.” Jorge is a first-generation college student as well, but, unlike Samantha, is also a first-generation American. His parents, who were originally born in Mexico, have always been a large source of Jorge’s inspiration; the perseverance and optimism they evinced, despite discrimination they have occasionally and continue to face, always motivated him to use his talents to help better the lives of the underrepresented and voiceless: “My parents are one of my biggest heroes, both of them. They left their country to come here to the United States, [but] not for themselves. They’ve never once mentioned ‘We came to this country so that I could have a better life.’ Every time they tell me [why they came to the United States, they say] ‘We came here because we wanted a better life for our children than we have.'”
“One of the biggest reasons why I’ve gotten involved in trying to help [others] and to make things better for the majority of people, [particularly] those who are sometimes underrepresented, [stems from something my parents have] always told me, and something I continue to live [by] to this day. [That is] we’re given opportunities in the world to better the lives of people around us and those who will come after us, [and we should always take advantage of those opportunities]. That’s something I’ve lived with… my entire life. I’m fortunate enough to come to Penn State… [despite the fact that] the highest education [my parents] got was elementary school, because they had to go work… in their small village in Mexico. They’ve taught me values that an education will never be able to teach me.”
Like Samantha, Jorge describes himself as “involved in everything” in high school. His decision to involve himself so widely came after he realized that, despite his parents’ background: a college education was indeed attainable for him: “Up until sophomore year, college wasn’t really an option for me. It was something that I’d never thought about. None of my family had gone to college, let alone high school, so even high school was different [and] completely new for our family. But there was one instance where, one teacher my sophomore year pulled me aside… and she told me you’re supposed to be involved in” a meeting that was being held about entering college after high school.
Jorge was initially invited to the meeting, but “I kind of ignored it. Like I said, college was never really [thought of] as an option for me or something I had ever thought about. So I kind of pushed it aside and said ‘I’m not going.’ I was walking down the hallway and one of the guidance councilors saw me and she said ‘You’re supposed to be in that meeting,’ and she pushed me into that meeting. And that really opened my eyes to my potential.”
“From there on out, I got really involved. I was in nine different [organizations].” Among other things, Jorge was President of the Spanish Honors Society, a member of the Student Council, President of the School Yearbook, and even served as the manager of his school Tennis team one year, despite the fact that he didn’t play tennis: “One time they didn’t have a manager, and I was like ‘I mean I guess I’ll do it if you need one.’ I didn’t have any tennis background, but I was just there [to help them].”
One of Jorge’s proudest accomplishments at his high school, which was majority white, was that he started a Student Diversity Council and organized an award-winning conference intended to spark a dialogue about race in his community: “My junior year, I started this Student Diversity Council, and with that we able to get certified by the Anti-Defamation League as a “No Place For Hate” school. Along with [creating] that organization, I was able to put on a conference at our school that brought in community leaders, [including] the Mayor, police officers… Temple University faculty, West Chester University faculty, [as well as] a former skinhead.We were able to bring students together as well, all of these different individuals from different areas just to discuss race and diversity.”
For his efforts in organizing the conference and “really pushing race relations in a small [country] town in Chester County Pennsylvania,” Jorge was honored with the Princeton Prize in Race Relations: “It was pretty cool to see people come together. To this day, that is one my biggest accomplishments, something that I’m really proud of.”
Samantha and Jorge both spoke about how proud their parents were of them as first-generation college students. Jorge’s parents are “so proud of me, and so supportive about everything that I do. When I filled the at-large position and got sworn in, my mom re-shared it and was like ‘I’m so proud of my son.'” Samantha echoed his comments: “I think that’s the coolest thing about having parents who have first-generation children. My mom is literally so excited about everything that I do. She’s doing my [campaign] website, she just texts me every 15 minutes [saying] ‘What do you need? What can I do for you?’ It’s really awesome.”
Experience Serving in UPUA
In her freshman year, Samantha originally got involved in UPUA serving as a member of the Freshman Council, as well as on the Executive Board for the Department of Communications. In her sophomore year, she decided to run to serve as the representative of the Eberly College of Science, a position which she has held for two years.
In her role as Eberly representative during the 10th UPUA Assembly, along with her normal role, she served
: on the Facilities and Academic Affairs Committees; as a student senator in the Faculty Senate, where she sat on the Student Life Committee and Undergraduate Education Committee, and also chaired the Student Senator caucus; as the liaison and inaugural conference-coordinator for the Association of Big Ten Students; and as a member of the Eberly College of Science Executive Board. In the 11th UPUA Assembly, she became the Executive Director of the ABTS, and currently serves as the Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, which is the largest Committee in UPUA, as well as on the Administrative Council of Undergraduate Education.
She views her biggest accomplishments as stemming from work done while serving on the Academic Affairs Committee and in the Faculty Senate. One of those accomplishments was getting the Faculty Senate to mandate Early Progress Reports: “It mandates that professors have to tell students if they’re going to receive below a ‘C’ before late drop. We have a lot of senior-level classes that are small seminars where professors don’t given any grades at all… [sometimes] students just don’t even know what their grade is. This would mandate that they have some sort of idea if they’re going to pass or fail the class if they’re [thinking about dropping] it.” Another policy that Samantha is particularly proud of working on while in the Faculty Senate is the “Freshman Forgiveness” program, which limits the extent to which academic struggles that freshman have while making the adjustment to college permanently damage their GPA: “That’s one of our biggest accomplishments ever. Ten years ago, no one ever would’ve seen something like that coming from [the] Senate.”
Like Samantha, Jorge served in the Freshman Council his first year, but ultimately resigned after a month due to a feeling of inefficacy; thereafter, he was nominated as the Secretary of the Latino Caucus, making him the youngest Executive Board member on the Caucus, “which resulted in the Executive Board and I kind of bump[ing] heads.” Along with that position, Jorge also started the “Sons of Jeffrey” during his freshman year, “which is the Penn State Men’s Soccer supporters organization. We would go to soccer games with them and” try to fill the void of support that existed at the time. “The Women’s Soccer team did have one. I saw that that was missing [for the Men’s team], and I took initiative and kind of started that. We worked with marketing in the Bryce Jordan Center and got that going.”
During his sophomore year, Jorge decided that, despite his prior decision to resign from the UPUA’s Freshman Council, he would apply for an at-large position that had opened up: “One of the reasons why I actually did it was when I was speaking to Ryan [Valencia, an at-large representative at the time], he told me that he was the only Latino representation there and [there was] very [little] representation of other communities of color. When I heard that, that was the thing that [led me to think] ‘I have to do it.'”
After being appointed to the at-large position, Jorge ran for the Chairmanship of the Student Life Committee in his junior year, ultimately earning the position of Vice-Chair which he holds today. He stated that the Student Life Committee primarily deals with the issues of “sexual assault, mental health, diversity and inclusion.”
One of the core lessons Jorge has taken away from his time serving in the UPUA, which he views as necessary to succeed in the role of Vice President, is that UPUA leadership needs to actively seek out the opinions and concerns of typically underrepresented and marginalized communities, rather than expect them to bring those concerns to the UPUA leadership on their own: “If you want to understand where people are coming from, we can’t expect them to come to us and tell us what’s going on. We have to really be out there and really be engaging on a day-to-day basis with these students.”
Samantha and Jorge also have previous experience collaborating together in UPUA, with both of them spearheading the effort to have ways in which students can report faculty bias included on every class syllabi. One of the reasons Jorge initially decided to help lead this effort, and one reason that he wants to continue serving as the voice of the marginalized on campus more broadly, is due to the fact that he has felt the effects of such bias, both because he has been on the receiving end and knows individuals personally that have been as well: “I have met individuals that have been victims of sexual assault, that deal with mental health [issues], and have been victims of [racial] bias… that have had water dumped on their face and been told to ‘Go back to your country’… and [generally] feel that they’re not welcome here. When these things happen to people that I’ve met and people I consider my close personal friends, for me it has become more than just an initiative, it is about ensuring that people like the people I’ve come to know don’t have to deal with that anymore.”
Goals of Their Campaign Platform
Jorge argued that the Geisinger-Zurita-Coronado platform “is not [just] about us crossing things off. Our platform is about making a University that works for everybody. That’s at the core of all of our initiatives. I think every initiative that’s on there is, in a way, hoping to make the University work for everybody. We have a platform that is fresh, that has new ideas, that really pushes UPUA to the limit. We are the students, we have every right to demand what we want from our University, [and] what we want from our University is a University that works for everybody.”
He also argued that their platform is, by far, the best platform in terms of promoting diversity and inclusion because their platform includes concrete actions that directly and immediately address concerns with these communities, rather than just initiatives that seek to re-hash old conversations:”We’re done [just] talking. We’re done having conversations. We’re done sitting down and talking with organizations around a table about what’s going on. If you haven’t [already] figured out what’s wrong with these communities, it’s going to be another year of the same thing of ‘Let’s sit around and talk.’ We had those conversations already.”
Samantha stated that their platform has “two major goals. Number one is to help increase UPUA’s recognition among the student body, in terms of them actually knowing us, and knowing [how approachable we are]. There are [even] representatives in our own assembly who don’t feel comfortable walking up to our leadership and asking them questions, let alone students in the regular student body.”
The second is to help make the student experience across all stages of being a student, from applying to graduating, more accessible and welcoming; this goal has helped to inform their campaign motto “Aspire, Participate, Live.” Jorge broke each part of their motto down: “Aspire: every Penn State student has aspired to do something and they weren’t able to. Participate: really engaging with the Penn State community, being involved and having the tools necessary to achieve here on-campus. Live: being able to be on-campus and live freely without fear of [not] being included [as well as] having the resources necessary to live a healthy Penn State experience, in terms of mental health resources.”
They then identified a few of their platform initiatives that they were particularly excited about; the initiatives that they both identified reflected Jorge’s aforementioned view that, in terms of promoting diversity and inclusion, their campaign was focused on action rather than simply rhetoric.
Jorge discussed their platform proposal which would create hijab-friendly housing as a living option for Muslim students: “Women who practice Islam have very strict practices with their Hijab and their religion. One of the things we want is for them to feel comfortable wherever they may be. So we want to make, whether it be an entire residency hall [or not], hijab-friendly housing. [Under such a living option], these women who practice Islam [would be] free to walk around the floor, and able to relax and feel comfortable at home. Like I said, we’ve heard what the issues are, so let’s act on the issues.” Jorge stated that he was also excited about his initiative to establish Latinx and Asian-American Studies programs: “We have an African-American studies program, but we need to expand that… the fact that there [isn’t a similar option for the Latinx and Asian-American communities] at Penn State sends a very strong message to these communities. That’s something that I deeply care about.”
Samantha expressed excitement about an initiative that would create an “International House,” which Ohio State has already implemented to a great response; the International House, which would be a housing option for both international and domestic students, would be designed to reflect the communities that students come from, in an effort to make international students feel more comfortable at Penn State. Along with accomplishing the latter, Samantha argued that creating the International House would also help to spark a conversation among the student body about inclusion: “It will make other students aware that students who are international have an issue living on-campus. Students who come from other countries might not feel comfortable living in our resident halls because of how different it is from their normal culture. Other students will learn that ‘Oh, we needed an international house? That must mean these students didn’t feel comfortable.’ I think that, by doing big initiatives like that, it not only helps the community that feels unsafe, but makes other people aware that that community feels unsafe. That’s what really needs to start happening around here.” Samantha also expressed a desire to immediately “start [a] conversation with the Office of Emergency Management, because I really want to see a really different alert system on-campus.”
“Why should students vote for you?”
Samantha: “I think one of the major reasons why I decided to run for this position is because of the fact that members of UPUA internally told me that they don’t feel comfortable talking to our leadership. How are we supposed to expect the average student to think that they can come to us and voice their concerns to us if our own members of our own organization can’t? That’s why I ran…I’ve always tried to be a resource for people, and I just want students to know that they can walk into the UPUA office and tell us that they’re having an issue in their classroom or that their professor said something that they shouldn’t have, and know that we’re going to take care of it. And I don’t think students know that right now, and I want them to. And that’s why I think people should vote for us.”
Jorge: “I think students should vote for our ticket because we [represent] what an average Penn State student is. We are not individuals who have only done UPUA, who have closed ourself [off] from the greater Penn State community. At a surface level, we are a representation of what Penn State is; we are two minorities, a woman and a Latino. Samantha and I have both gotten through personal struggles and we understand the difficulty it is to be a first-generation college student. The thing that we constantly go back to is we want this University to work for everybody. We want it to be a place where you can be who you are, you have the tools to succeed, and that your student government is here for you. That we are by the students, for the students.”
Be sure to check out our Election central page for more UPUA election coverage.
Photo Credit: Geisinger-Zurita-Coronado Campaign