ASUI president-elect reflects on past, looks forward to future
ASUI President-elect Max Cowan said he’s always been a bit of a nerd.
In high school, he said he loved competing in academic competitions and serving in his school’s student government — or, as he called it, glorified event planning.
It was here, trying to discuss policy as student body president and being written off by the school administration, when Cowan said he first experienced being unable to accomplish his goals. According to him, it lit a fire in his belly.
“It was a factor for me, deciding to be more involved in being a face for students’ abilities to be a part of their own education,” Cowan said. “I thought that was really important, and something I recognized I was passionate about.”
When Cowan came to the University of Idaho as a freshman, he had never set foot on campus prior to his move-in date. He said he didn’t expect to be a part of student government at the collegiate level because he didn’t know what to expect.
Then, he met ASUI Sen. J “Jacob” Marsh.
“I was a first-year student, and he encouraged me to run for Senate,” Cowan said. “He helped me realize that you’re only limited by the limitations you place on yourself — if you work hard enough, you can get a lot accomplished.”
With the help of Marsh, Cowan ran and was elected to the ASUI Senate in the fall of 2011. Cowan said the experience was radically different than being involved in high school government, and he got his first taste of having an impact on campus during his first term as a senator.
“I sat on the funding board, and we had a large problem where multicultural student groups in particular were coming and having trouble getting funded,” he said.
The board realized the issue was that the ASUI Funding Board bylaws expressly prohibited allocating funding for food, he said. Multicultural organizations aim to promote culture on campus, and food is a huge part of culture, Cowan said.
After this realization, the board revised the bylaws to allow ASUI to fund many multicultural dinner and showcase events such as Africa Night, India Night and Nepali Night. The first event hosted after receiving funding had more than 500 participants, according to Cowan.
“It was incredibly rewarding,” Cowan said. “When I stepped into ASUI here, it was a totally new experience like that. We were dealing with policy issues and funding student organizations on such a large level and talking about such a large budget.”
Cowan served two terms on the ASUI Senate before running for the 2013-2014 ASUI presidency alongside running mate Taylor Williams. It was intimidating, as his two opponents were well-liked on campus, but Cowan said he and Williams were the most driven and the most passionate, and he believes this is what made them stand out.
As president, Cowan said he learned just how many demands ASUI meets from stakeholders, other than the students of the university.
“It’s difficult to keep the focus on things that really matter, and to have that perspective that ASUI doesn’t always do a great job of keeping focus on student-centric issues,” Cowan said. “I gained that perspective during my first term as ASUI president.”
He said the job was stressful, and by the end of his first year, he said he was ready to bow away from ASUI and said his talents could be better served elsewhere.
During the 2014-2015 fall semester, he focused on his studies and later returned to serve as the ASUI Senate parliamentarian, or “secretary” of the Senate. Cowan said he gained even more perspective about the student experience and remembered what made him so passionate about serving in ASUI in the first place.
“I don’t have a passion for politics,” Cowan said. “I think we often conflate politics and policy. I would continue to be involved in politics, not for the sake of politics, but for the sake of making an impact in the things that really matter. I’m passionate about education and I’ve fallen in love with the state of Idaho.”
Cowan said his passion will drive him through his second term as president. Cowan said he’s optimistic as he approaches his second term, and would begin appointing a cabinet, starting with a chief of staff next week.
Despite twice leaving the political realm and twice gravitating back into its orbit, Cowan said he doesn’t see himself in politics for the long haul.
“Like most students, I’d hope to be able to support myself after college,” Cowan said. “There’s a lot of areas I’m passionate in, but whatever my profession is after college doesn’t preclude being engaged in a number of different areas.”
Hannah Shirley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org