By Cynthia Chen and Emily Zhang
Two Maryland Student Member of the Board finalists were elected on Feb. 20, 2021, at the Maryland Association of Student Council’s Virtual Legislative Session. River Hill High School junior, Dhriti Vadlakonda, is one of the candidate finalists for this year’s 36th SMOB election.
About Dhriti Vadlakonda
One of the primary reasons Vadlakonda is running is the opportunity to meet students across the state. She loves meeting new people and forming new connections.
“I think creating those relationships really gives me a lot of happiness and energy,” Vadlakonda said. “As state SMOB I’d get that opportunity to meet potentially 900,000 students from diverse regions in Maryland to hear their amazing stories. That really excites me a lot.”
She is also passionate about elevating the student voice at any level.
Past experience in student gov
Vadlakonda has always been a leader. Tracing back to when she was in sixth grade, she remembers voting for her county’s SMOB finalists, which led her to join the Howard County Association of Student Councils (HCASC).
“Obviously, as a sixth-grader, it was a bit intimidating, but I knew this was definitely something I wanted to do,” Vadlakonda said. “At HCASC my love for student government grew, and I’ve since gotten involved in many other organizations and activities.”
She now serves as the corresponding secretary and director of the communications task force for HCASC, where she relays critical information and leadership opportunities to thousands of students in Howard County, along with connecting students to the Board of Education.
“This year especially, with the legislation threatening the Howard County SMOB’s voting rights, as the corresponding secretary, I’ve worked extensively to advocate for the SMOB’s role,” Vadlakonda said. “Obviously, communication during these times is very important, and I believe that from my experiences in these positions, I’ll be a very transparent and communicative student member.”
In the past, she has also served as class president and student delegate at her county SMOB convention.
Experience running for SMOB
Throughout her campaigning experience, she has loved meeting the other candidates and students.
“The three candidates that I actually ran against, they were some of the kindest, most intelligent and most devoted student leaders that I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting,” Vadlakonda said. “I also really loved meeting the students, at the candidate town halls, and at the actual SMOB convention. These student leaders were so enthusiastic, passionate and very unique; I was touched they were willing to share their personal stories and concerns with me, and that they were willing to place their trust in my hands.”
Because of the pandemic, Vadlakonda had to adapt her campaign to a virtual format. Though this was different than the norm, it did come with a lot of perks.
“I think that campaigning in person might come with more pressure and more politics, but with the virtual campaigning platform, all the candidates had a level playing field,” Vadlakonda said. “We got to communicate a lot more, a lot of outreach to far ends of the state, so I definitely think that it’s a very different process, but I’m very thankful for the way it did turn out.”
Throughout this process, Vadlakonda gained a tremendous amount of knowledge. One of the biggest lessons she has acquired is that there is a lot more to learn.
“If this process has taught me anything it’s that there’s a lot more to learn, whether it be about the student voice, policy matters and student concerns in our state,” Vadlakonda said. “I absolutely love learning new things, so this should be a very fun adventure should I be appointed.”
Vision for Maryland Schools
If elected as SMOB, Vadlakonda hopes to act as a bridge between students and the Board of Education. She hopes to build a relationship that is both strong and transparent, in order to enact meaningful change.
“Students should feel like they have support and resources at every corner they turn, especially the knowledge that they have from a Maryland SMOB, who has their back on every issue, be it a social issue, a personal issue, or a policy issue.”
An important issue Vadlakonda plans to tackle next year is the learning loss that results from school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. School shutdowns have potentially caused students to lose anywhere from five to nine months worth of learning, especially for students of low socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I’d also like to encourage the board to advocate for the educational recovery of at-risk students, obviously, students with disabilities, low-income students, racial and ethnic minorities, younger students, I can go on and on,” Vadlakonda said. “These students are lacking that personal touch they need and I’d love to advocate on behalf of them on the Board of Education.”
In addition to advocating for these students, Vadlakonda plans on further closing the achievement gap by promoting free student-led tutoring organizations through both county student councils and the state student council as well as providing support through her social media accounts and her website.
Another prominent issue that Vadlakonda plans to focus on next year is mental health. Vadlakonda is passionate about ensuring the mental wellbeing of students, especially after an abnormal school year where many students have been learning virtually from home.
“We should have been doing this yesterday, but I will ensure that the board takes steps to perform wellness checks for all students,” Vadlakonda said. “We have to address health, trauma, abuse, addiction, domestic violence, all of those things.”
Vadlakonda also stresses the importance of promoting state-wide mental health resources on social media and spreading greater awareness on the gravity of the issue. She also plans on advocating for partnership with mental health organizations.
Asian-American students, as well as all students of racial and ethnic minorities often feel that there is a lack of diversity and representation within the curriculum.
“So often we experience the underrepresentation of our cultures in our classes,” Vadlakonda said. “As an Asian American myself, I don’t often hear about the contributions of Indians in American architecture, medicine, literature, fashion, cuisine and so much more.”
Diversifying the curriculum is one of Vadlakonda’s biggest platform goals. She plans on emphasizing that research has found students of color tend to be more engaged in the classroom when they are represented in the curriculum, as well as the fact that students who are challenged by new perspectives develop greater empathy and a better understanding of racism.
“[I would] express our desire to learn more about people in our textbooks and our reading assignments, and generally advocate for the implementation of Asian American history in our curriculum,” Vadlakonda said.
Advice for other students
For students trying to get involved in student government, Vadlakonda stresses that there are many opportunities available to improve the student voice.
“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, we need your voice, and it’s never ever too late to get involved,” Vadlakonda said.
Some opportunities Vadlakonda mentioned are joining school SGA, county councils, state council, county policy committees, or state committees with student representatives. She also noted that both the Maryland center of school safety and the governor’s commission on suicide prevention have student representatives.
“If I am appointed as student member it would be my job to spread the word about these countless opportunities the moment that I learn about them,” Vadlakonda said. “While knowing how to get involved can be difficult, I would definitely encourage students to reach out to me or any other student leader that they know because we are more than happy to give you guys advice about next steps and additional information.”
Learn more about Vadlakonda’s campaign: https://dhriti4marylandsmob.weebly.com/
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 19 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.