Everybody wants to talk with Jerlisa Fontaine. It’s a good thing she likes to talk.
The new University at Albany Student Association president, Fontaine spends much of her time these days hunkered down in the UAlbany student governing body’s campus center offices, conducting interview after interview with prospective association appointees and keeping up with school work in the year’s waning weeks. She doesn’t sleep much, she said.
Fontaine’s administration promises to be an historic one: she was the first female student elected to the position in 17 years and, as far as anyone can, tell she is the first black female ever to hold the position.
But when she emerges from the SA offices and steps onto the campus podium, she’s another student waving down friends and catching up with a quick conversation.
“Hey, love,” Fontaine said Thursday evening to a classmate who stopped to watch as Fontaine posed for pictures in front of the massive fountain at the heart of the campus.
They chatted for a minute, Fontaine displaying both the warmth of a friend and the magnetic charisma of a seasoned politician.
“Bye, Madame Prez,” the friend said as she headed off.
That wasn’t the only person to call Fontaine “Madame Prez” or “La Presidente.” But most people call her “Juju,” a nickname she has had since growing up in the Bronx.
Fontaine, 21, was sworn in as UAlbany Student Association president on Wednesday and is looking to fill around a dozen key leadership positions in the association by this coming Wednesday. She was booked tight with interviews, leaving for a 6:15 p.m. meeting a few minutes before 6:30 p.m. “I’ve got six minutes before I have to go,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of things to do. A million things at once.”
She credits much of her success to her father, an immigrant from the island nation of Dominica, whom she said emphasized the importance of education and showered her with love, praise and encouragement. She landed at UAlbany while looking for a college away from home that wouldn’t break the bank.
After finishing at UAlbany next year, Fontaine, a Human Biology major, plans to work in health care, starting out with a state or other job that will give her a chance to better understand health disparities. Then she plans to attend medical school and become an OB/GYN. And a political career isn’t out of the question, she said. But that will have to wait until after the medicine.
“I like a lot of things, I’m a chatty person, I like people,” she said. “I wanted to be everything: I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a lawyer, I wanted to be a writer.”
At least she’s used to the busy life. Fontaine started out as an intern in SA her freshman year, eventually advancing to director of marketing and chief of staff under outgoing president Felix Abreu. She was president of the Minority Association of Pre-Med Students, joined the NAACP, helped organize events on campus and minors in business.
Working under the three SA presidents that came before her, Fontaine said she is intimately familiar with what it takes to lead the organization. She plans to improve SA’s budget transparency – the association oversees an over $2.5 million budget funded by mandatory student fees – by publishing more budget details.
“Having that experience puts her in a position that she can definitely excel and bring Student Association to a level we weren’t able to,” said Abreu, an early supporter and endorser of Fontaine during the campus-wide campaign. “She is passionate about it, she has a real passion for serving as a resource to other students and helping them grow. She has a real passion.”
She also wants to improve students’ understanding of what SA does aside from a pair of major annual events, while also expanding the emphasis on academics. She hopes to continue to grow a mentoring program started last year, establish monthly academic “banquets” that bring together students and faculty from rotating disciplines and do more to bring students from different social and cultural cliques together.
“It starts off at the school level. What issues are going on in my school?” she said.
One of her major accomplishments, one of deeper intrinsic worth, may already be behind her: her election. Fontaine, joined on a slate by new SA Vice President Madeeha Khan, an international student, garnered 65 percent of the roughly 2,500 votes cast during the election last month, according to the Albany Student Press.
So why does Fontaine think it has been so long since a female held the position?
“I want to say I have a direct answer to that, but I don’t,” she said.
Maybe students perceive women as emotionally or intellectually incapable of running the association or maybe women felt they wouldn’t be able to garner the support to run in the first place, she speculated.
Fontaine said Hillary Clinton’s campaign was painfully informative, surprising her that a woman as qualified of Clinton couldn’t break through.
“She had all these qualifications, and they still weren’t ready for her,” Fontaine said of Clinton’s defeat. “How much experience do I need as a woman to prove I really am experienced? Whether I want to strive for the highest spot in medicine or politics will people shoot me down because I’m not [a] man?”
And she may well have it even harder than Clinton.
Fontaine said as a young black woman – she cites with pride her African heritage, while in the next breath noting all humans have African roots – she is “double oppressed.”
She was inspired by President Barack Obama, a symbol that her skin color need not keep her from pursuing ambitious goals. The entire Obama family, especially Michelle, serve as role models, she said. But she said she has “half hope” coming out of the Obama era, troubled by instances of police abuse against blacks and the vitriol of the presidential election.
So for now she keeps her focus local, on the UAlbany campus and its diverse student body and those vacant positions she has to fill. Any maybe she can serve a role model to others.
“Now having Juju there is a high likelihood there will be more people like us, women and minorities running for those positions,” said Abreu, who was the first Latino SA president since the 1990s. “We are on a new page and it’s about time we start motivating more individuals from minority groups to continue striving.”
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