When Rini Sampath beat Providence Ilisevich to become the next president of USC’s undergraduate student government on Tuesday night, she didn’t just earn an impressive bullet point for her resume—she ended a disturbing trend. Sampath, who has served on the student council since 2013, became the first woman elected to the position in nearly a decade. (Of depressing note: Before this year’s race, no other women had sought the job since 2006.) Along with her running mate, Jordan Fowler, Sampath is also part of what is believed to be the first all-female ticket elected in Pac-12 history.
Looking back, Sampath blames USC’s dearth of female candidates over the past decade on a campus culture that hasn’t encouraged women to run for student office. To help change that culture, she’s arranged for inspirational programing, like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Circles, at the university. “Jordan is really passionate about a program called Elect Her,” she says. “We want to bring that to USC as well.”
Running for office, she says, wasn’t without its low points. “We’re both women of color, so I expected the challenge of facing some racism and sexism,” she says, “but most disheartening was when, early on in the campaign, a woman I knew asked us ‘Do you really think two women can win?’ That was disappointing.” There were also racist comments—including one comparing a vote for Sampath to a vote for Al Qaeda—made on YikYak, a social media app that allows users to post things anonymously. “It was hard to see,” says Sampath, “even when we had an outpouring of support.”
Today, she’s more focused on celebrating her victory—and setting her agenda for the 2015-2016 term: sexual assault prevention efforts and raising awareness for mental health issues on campus. And she has one important email to send: “I emailed [Sheryl Sandberg] before I started to run and sent her our Web site, and she told me she’d be rooting for us. I’m looking forward to sending her a note.”