Monday, September 27, 2021

City Stars: 1st Black woman ASMSU president shares her historic journey

March 29, 2021
<p>Photo courtesy of Abii-Tah Bih.</p>

Photo courtesy of Abii-Tah Bih.

At 4 a.m., the students of Case Hall were in for a surprise awakening when Abii-Tah Chungong Bih became the first Black, female student body president of Michigan State on April 16.

The night had begun at 7 p.m., when the Associated Students of Michigan State University General Assembly was debating whether Bih, then-junior studying international relations and comparative cultures and politics, or her opponent would be the new student body president.

Given that Bih’s opponent was the vice president and she was a member of the GA, she said she wasn’t expecting to win because historically, vice presidents end up becoming the president.

“I really, really honestly had no precedent to be like, ‘That person did it, I can do it, too,’” Bih said. “So, in my mind, it was just like, ‘I’ve done my best. I don’t know what to do at this point.’”

So, when it was announced that about two-thirds of the votes came back in her favor, Bih said all she could do was scream.

“I was so shocked," Bih said. "I just screamed. My friends were in the room, and they screamed, and we just stormed out of the door and we were just running across the hallway at 4 a.m. in Case Hall.”

For Bih, student government has always been one of her interests.

Her journey to her historic presidency began in primary school, when she took interest in running for a position on her school’s student body.

Unfortunately, Bih’s candidacy was cut short — according to Bih, when she denied a predatory teacher’s advance toward her, he retaliated by erasing her candidacy for student body president.

That incident encouraged Bih to strive even harder to make her voice heard. 

“That was the first time I actually realized if I was a little boy instead of a little girl, this would not be happening if I was running for a position like this,” Bih said. “So, that just became motivation for me to essentially be a part of those spaces, be a part of larger conversations, not accepting mediocrity in any space where I am.”

She didn’t give up. At her high school in Cameroon, Bih beat out nine other students to become chairlady of her school.

Then, she embarked on a two-year leadership program in South Africa with 200 other students from across the continent, where she got a student government position, too.

“Even before I came to MSU, I knew that I would be involved with student government,” Bih said. “That has always been my home. It has always given me fulfillment and purpose.”

Bih came to MSU because of a scholarship. She received a full scholarship to study at MSU for four years.

“I did not even know where MSU was — or where Michigan was — on the map of the world,” Bih said. “I just knew that the money would be helpful with educating me, and I really appreciated the values of leadership that they were emphasizing for their candidates.”

At the university, Bih introduced to the James Madison College program from people who went to her high school. 

“It was a fascinating journey to just join James Madison my freshman year and be exposed to a new culture, a new country, a new set of people, new values, new ideologies,” Bih said. “Everything was brand new, so everything was super exciting in my freshman year.”

Bih applied for multiple jobs at ASMSU during her freshman year, but she did not get any of them, causing her to step back for a minute.

The next year, Bih became a class council member and ran to represent James Madison in the GA. She won, and throughout her junior year, she represented the college.

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Initially, Bih said she never thought she’d run for president. However, a series of racist incidents that occurred on campus in 2020 opened her eyes and changed her mind.

“It was like, how can I contribute?” Bih said. “What else can I do to make sure I’m leaving this campus better, more inclusive and more accepting of people of different backgrounds?”

After those incidents, Bih passed a bill requiring diversity and inclusion training for all students, faculty and staff.

“I realized that I actually do have the voice and the power by being here to make a difference,” Bih said. 

Additionally, Bih said not having a role model to look up to when she came here encouraged her to be that person for other people.

“It was also about people who are coming into MSU and sound like me and have an accent and look like me,” Bih said. “How am I making sure that they feel that they can achieve anything on this campus and that nothing is a barrier to their success on campus?”

Bih also had to consider that she would be the first Black, female president to be elected on MSU’s campus.

“That would open a door that so many other people have felt that they don’t have access to,” Bih said. “So, it became so much bigger than me and bigger than the things that I personally found purposeful.”

Thus, Bih said it was a “no-brainer” by the end of her junior year — she would be running for student body president.

So, that fateful night in Case Hall when Bih’s victory was announced became the “most surreal moment” of her life.

Bih said she knew there would be uncertainty in store after her election, given the coronavirus pandemic that had hit the state within the month.

“I knew that I was walking into uncharted territory, and I knew that nothing would prepare me for some of the experiences I’ve had this year,” Bih said. 

She knew she would have to be "different and innovative and swing with the moment to make sure things work."

“We didn’t even have lemons to make lemonade,” Bih said. “... We were literally given seeds to squeeze out lemonade from.”

Despite only having seeds, however, Bih and ASMSU were able to make quite a lot of lemonade. Bih said there is “a lot of things to be proud of” from ASMSU this year.

While on average, ASMSU passes 70-80 bills a year, Bih said 130 bills have already come in this year.

Also, Bih mentioned raising $85,000 to provide grocery gift cards to students who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

She said she remembers having to pitch the idea and ask administration for money to make it happen, since ASMSU didn’t have the funds on its own.

When Bih presented the idea to the provost, she said she donated $15,000 on the spot. 

Since then, over 1,000 students have received those gift cards.

Additionally, the organization is working on creating a non-citizen fund to give assistance to international and undocumented students.

Among other efforts to encourage fossil fuel divestment and efforts to emphasize marginalized voices in the community, ASMSU has had a busy and productive year under Bih’s leadership. 

Bih, however, said she is “very proud” of her efforts to implement the satisfactory/non-satisfactory grading scale.

After President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. refused to implement the grading scale, Bih’s last resort was to enlist more help.

“I wrote a statement addressed … to members of our administration and essentially brought all Big Ten student body presidents to support me and to sign onto that statement,” Bih said. 

In the following days, Stanley accepted the s/ns grading system, which Bih called a “huge deal.”

Following that, Bih said she received so much appreciation from students who said her work in implementing the system saved their lives and academic careers.

“It’s for these little moments that I essentially have lived for in this last year,” Bih said. “Just essentially fending for students and fighting for them with everything I have, and it has been the most purposeful work that I ever could have done.”

While it has been a struggle leading a student body through a pandemic, Bih said she would not take another year over this one.

“I would have never chosen to be president in an easier year or a less crisis-filled year,” Bih said. “I think serving in the craziest, most tumultuous year of the century, arguably, has been the biggest privilege of my life.”

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