The feeling of being in a new state, or even country for others, during their first years away from home can be isolating for many. O’Key said finding a community early on can be the difference between a good and a bad college experience.
Originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina, the College of Architecture, Design
“I’m a big advocate for communities on campus, whether that be the Greek community or whether that be the newly formed Pizza Club – I will advocate for it all,” O’Key said. “We (SGA) do kind of check all the boxes as far as holding forums. ... It’s almost like, are we doing just enough to say that we did those things, or are we genuinely trying to reach everyone as much as possible?”
With his platform, I’m Like Mike, the presidential hopeful wants to break down the barrier between SGA and the general student body and make all students feel comfortable voicing their opinions.
During campaign week, O’Key said he and his team would be listening to prospective voters rather than hounding them, but regardless of who wins, he wants students’ concerns to be seriously considered past election week.
O’Key is in favor of the upcoming referendum on post-season football tickets but is disappointed students felt they had to create an online petition rather than address SGA directly.
“That shows the power that we have in this age to do things via the internet,” he said. “But it also shows that students felt the need to externally express their outrage. … It doesn’t sit well to me at all. They felt like they needed to take it into their own hands because they weren’t being listened to on their own college campus.”
Though he’s served on numerous bodies at Auburn – as executive director of Welcome Week for the past two years and as chair of the SGA Inclusion and Diversity Committee – O’Key said his roles all relate back to making sure campus is a place where all students have a voice and sense of community.
Over the years, the number of international students has been trending upward. According to the University’s Office of Institutional Research, 4.8 percent of all students in fall 2013 were from foreign countries. Last semester, 9 percent of students were from out of the country.
“Even SGA, my beloved SGA, is very skewed toward in-state students, and as fantastic as Alabama is, that just doesn’t represent Auburn as a whole,” O’Key said.
Part of creating an accommodating campus for non-Alabamian students, O’Key said, is using resources to attract them. O’Key suggested that targeting potential out-of-state students in areas like Atlanta, Nashville or Charlotte, where there are large numbers of University alumni and their families, could strengthen the Auburn Family by keeping legacies in the system.
Fifty-seven percent of Auburn students last semester were from Alabama. There were more students from Houston County, Alabama, than from all of O’Key’s home state of North Carolina.
Meanwhile at the University of Alabama, in the fall of 2016, only 43 percent of students were from Alabama, according to the school’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.
Parking and transportation is a pressing topic in Auburn, both on and off campus. For a while, O’Key focused on the dearth of student parking spots, but recently, O’Key has had to face another facet of Auburn’s transportation issue.
Five months ago, his car was totaled by a drunk driver. Since then, O’Key has had to get around town and campus without a vehicle as many students, especially out-of-state and international students, do.
“I want to focus my attention as well to the number of international students that walk four miles in hazardous conditions to get to the grocery store because we don’t have a Tiger Transit that takes them there,” he said. “We have a phenomenal shopping shuttle, but even its stops are limited, and the time that it runs is very limited as well.
“I feel like we’ve spent a very, very long (time) talking about the pavement side of parking. We haven’t talked about those students that don’t even have that option.”
Over the past year, the topic of sexual assault and harassment has been front and center for the University. In August 2017, ESPN reported a culture of sexual harassment and misconduct in the softball program. In September, a student was sexually assaulted on a late-night Tiger Transit bus.
O’Key said due process is important in instances like these but said he would like to see SGA take a more proactive role in speaking out and ensuring the safety of students in cases that might not receive as much attention.
“I think that SGA has gotten very good at saying no [when asked to take a stance on certain issues] for fear of marginalizing people,” O’Key said. “But I’m a strong believer in the Auburn Family, and I believe that families have values that need to be upheld, and we preach our Creed all the time. There are just some things that I truly believe that we cannot be silent about and that we have to take a stance on — sexual assault being one of them. … You can’t be silent even for a moment.”
The candidate also pointed toward white supremacist Richard Spencer’s April 2017 speech on campus as an instance when SGA didn’t take a firm stance.
O’Key is one of two black candidates running for the position that only two other black students have held in Auburn’s history.
While he said it would be an honor to serve as president, he also said the lack of diversity in the office’s history highlights a potential lack of opportunity for black students in student government.
“I don’t think that I’ve ever strived to be the first, or the second or the third of anything,” O’Key said. “I just want to be the best that I can be. ... I want to make all groups proud, whether that be my own black community, whether that be out-of-state students, even down to students that don’t have a car like I do. Those are kind of all the groups I’m representing by going out for this.”