Budget Baddies, part 2: The activist

Raphael Fernandez/ The Cougar
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“I wanted to be a voice for graduate students because there is a major lack of representation in SGA for them. Many graduate students are struggling here to sustain themselves, so hopefully I can help work to improve things,” public policy graduate student Jesus Nieto said. | Raphael Fernandez/The Cougar

Budget Baddies is a series chronicling the lives of the individuals representing the student body on the Student Fee Advisory Committee. More information on the ongoing dispute between the committee and the Board of Regents can be found under The Cougar’s “SFAC” tag. 

Jesus Nieto, a public policy graduate student, embodies a passion for advocacy and community involvement that has propelled him through a journey from undergraduate to a graduate student leader.

Hailing from the Southwest side of Houston, Nieto’s upbringing instilled in him a sense of the importance of community advocacy and social justice from an early age. Growing up, he found himself drawn to government and politics, often spending his free time watching election coverage instead of more typical teenage fare.

When I was a kid, people my age would normally watch the VMAs, but I would watch the State of Union address. I would watch election night and I would stay up all night just watching the results, I almost treated it like the Oscars,” Nieto said. 

His educational path led him first to the University of Houston-Downtown, where he pursued a major in political science.  At UHD, Nieto became deeply involved in student organizations and advocacy groups, eventually rising to become president of the UHD Student Government Association. 

“I became president right after the pandemic, so the communication there was super lackluster. I built this culture where student voices are needed in meetings and they can come together to make important decisions that impact the university,” Nieto said. 

It was during his tenure as SGA President that Nieto found his passion for effecting change within the University community, particularly in the face of challenges such as state legislation affecting higher education.

“When I was president, Senate Bill 17 was being passed, so I got to discuss with UH SGA before I even came to UH as a graduate student. We reached out to Chancellor Renu Khator to let her know that students didn’t want it to be passed and it would have a negative effect on the University if it did,” Nieto said.

After transitioning to graduate school, Nieto continued his academic journey with a focus on public policy. His decision to stay within the UH system was motivated by both the school’s reputation and its proximity to his hometown. Despite the larger scale of UH compared to UHD, Nieto found himself facing a new set of challenges, particularly in navigating the complexities of student leadership within a larger institution.

“The shock to me is like the community aspect. I was surprised to learn that a lot of student leaders aren’t that close knit together,” Nieto said. “UH SGA is kind of cliquish, which made me sad because I’m a heavy believer in working towards the same goal to advocate for the students.”

Undeterred by the transition, Nieto remained committed to making a difference. He quickly became involved in student government at UH and sought to address issues facing graduate students, particularly in terms of funding and support. His background in advocacy and leadership, honed during his time at UHD, served him well as he navigated the intricacies of student governance at UH.

“The biggest lesson I learned as president that has helped me is to always listen to the constituents that you’re serving when you are a leader. I think that every single student’s concerns are valuable,” Nieto said.

One of Nieto’s key initiatives as a graduate student leader is advocating for increased support and resources for graduate students, particularly in terms of funding and representation. With a goal to partner with the Graduate Professional Student Association, Nieto wishes to amplify the voices of graduate students within the University community to ensure that their concerns are heard and addressed.

“I wanted to be a voice for graduate students because there is a major lack of representation in SGA for them. Many graduate students are struggling here to sustain themselves, so hopefully I can help work to improve things,” Nieto said.

In addition to his advocacy work, Nieto also became involved in SFAC. Initially appointed on Sept. 6, 2023, Nieto’s appointment was soon met with scrutiny as senators discovered an error in the nomination process. According to the SGA Bylaws, a two-thirds majority vote from the Senate is required for an appointment to be valid. Despite receiving a vote of 13-11 in favor of his appointment, Nieto was erroneously granted the position due to a misinterpretation of the rules. However, he was nominated for the position once again in a subsequent meeting, where he secured his place on the committee.

“They tried to block me from joining SFAC the first time and it was a shock. Senators were arguing that because I came from a smaller school that I didn’t understand how UH functions,” Nieto said. “When I found out that I actually didn’t make the committee the first time, I was devastated. But, luckily I was able to go up for appointment again.” 

As part of SFAC, Nieto played a crucial role in scrutinizing the allocation of student fees, particularly regarding funding for different university departments and programs.

“We looked thoroughly at each department getting funded by student fees and the only department that did not provide details on what they were using the money for was UH Athletics. Still to this day they have not given us a definitive answer on what they use it for,” Nieto said. 

Nieto advocated for a more equitable distribution of resources, and emphasized the importance of prioritizing funding for departments that directly benefit students.

“During meetings with departments, I heard and saw department heads coming in here pleading to us, saying we can’t sustain ourselves, our walls are crumbling and we’re being displaced,” Nieto said. “I was pissed off during these meetings because it’s not right that some departments don’t even have enough money to pay for their law services.” 

Khator rejected the committee’s recommendations to increase funding for various student services and programs while simultaneously cutting support to Athletics. The rejection was then presented to the Board of Regents in February, where they voted to table the issue in order to talk more in-depth and gain a deeper understanding of the recommendations with SFAC members. 

“SFAC has the authority to go to the Board of Regents to present our case, and that is exactly what we did,” Nieto said. “I led the protest outside of the meeting and I was happy to find student leaders who want to create change as well.” 

Nieto remained steadfast in his commitment to representing student interests, even when they failed to show their support. He engaged in negotiations, organized protests, and worked tirelessly to bring attention to the issues at hand.

“It wasn’t all easy as there are university leaders on campus who refused to support SFAC, even though they would get funding from it,” Nieto said. “Some of these leaders are going to get their funding cut, so it is sad to see that they don’t want to stand next to us in protest for their own cause.” 

Reflecting on his experiences, Nieto highlighted the importance of student involvement in governance and the need for transparency and accountability in university decision-making. His dedication to advocating for student needs continues as he works to create positive change in the University. His legacy is a testament to the power of student leadership.

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