Serving as the chair for UM’s Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee has given senior Melanie Suaris tougher skin and a thicker backbone.
With more than 250 student organizations on campus, the SAFAC committee is responsible for reviewing a myriad of requests and allocating limited funds to those groups.
“I make sure all opinions are heard and mitigate a disagreement between two people with different views over where money should go,” Suaris said. “Money is a touchy subject, but I am responsible for holding an unbiased view.”
Student organizations can petition SAFAC for help with a variety of needs. Among the most popular requests are those for recreational sports competitions, travel costs and decorations or supplies for specific organization events throughout the school year.
The dollar amount the committee works with represents about 40 percent of annual student activity fees, though the exact account balance is known only by committee members and top campus administrators. With nearly 10,000 undergraduate students who each pay a $132 activity fee per semester, a rough estimate of SAFAC’s annual budget totals about $1 million a year.
Last year was Suaris’ first year on SAFAC, which was created in 1967. The committee is structured around one non-voting chair (Suaris), a non-voting faculty adviser and 13 voting members made up of delegates from each class, Student Government, sports and recreation organizations, Greek life, service and leadership groups, international interests and other student organizations on campus.
Suaris said an applicant does not have to show specific interest in financial matters, such as being a business major. However, six out of the 13 current SAFAC members are finance, economics or accounting majors.
“The members of the committee have always just been people who are affected by SAFAC,” Suaris said. “When we look at applications, we look at majors because we want diversification. By having a committee made up of people with different interests and involvement on campus, it allows us to make unbiased decisions. Involvement goes beyond the person’s interests.”
Though she makes money decisions every week, Suaris has no interest in a financial career path. She is a biomedical engineering major. Even so, Suaris has been able to lead SAFAC because she says she wants what is best for the students at UM.
Every Wednesday during fall and spring semesters, the committee meets from 2:30 to 5 p.m. to hear and decide on requests for funds. In addition to these meetings, each committee member is required to serve two office hours a week in the UC room 209 to ensure that there is always a SAFAC member available for answering questions that any student organization may have.
“I find myself in the UC all the time and commit about nine hours in total to SAFAC per week,” Suaris said. “I keep a strict schedule to help me and I’m always making agendas. I live a very structured life because I find that if you fall behind as a chair, it’s really hard to get back on track.”
One of the toughest parts of being the SAFAC chair is having to decline requests for funds. Suaris said the committee prides itself in providing every organization with an equal opportunity to request money. But, she stressed the need for organizations to understand that SAFAC works with a limited amount of money.
“The hardest part is saying no to people,” she said. “When things don’t go people’s way, they will lash out on you. I have learned to push through the negativity and not take it personally.”
As the SAFAC adviser, Laura Stott frequently assists Suaris and the rest of the committee with any problems that arise throughout the school year.
“Melanie is a people person; she engages the committee in budget discussion during meetings and works hard to ensure that the members are also getting something out of being on SAFAC,” said Stott. “She works well with the organizations, listening to what they need and provides them with a sounding board for finding solutions to issues that are having.”
Student organizations are provided with a SAFAC liaison for the school year and are also asked to send a representative to participate in a retreat meant to teach money management skills.
Nikki Chemel, a senior majoring in business management, found the retreat very helpful. Chemel serves as the treasurer for the Panhellenic Association.
“Melanie did a great job leading the retreat,” said Chemel. “It provided the treasurers and the presidents with all the relevant information in a fun and exciting way.”
In the future, Suaris would like to see student organizations on campus become more financially self-sufficient.
“SAFAC should just serve as a supplemental money source to provide funds that the organizations couldn’t cover,” she said. “It’s always disappointing when we get an organization’s budget request and everything is listed on there. SAFAC can only cover so much. I want organizations to really focus on raising as much money as they can on their own.”
Her experience of SAFAC chair has taught Suaris how to view issues from different angles, a lesson she feels is very important to moving forward and making successful decisions in life.
“You have to walk into our meetings, take off your so-called organization’s hat and put on your SAFAC hat,” Suaris said. “You have to be able to look at the big picture and decide to fund the things that what will make the university better as a whole.
“It’s a hard job, but let’s be real, without money nothing will happen,” she added.
Suaris plans to attend graduate school for further study in her major. UM is her top choice. If she is unable to stay a Hurricane, Suaris will look for schools outside of Florida.
“Even though my family lives in Miami, I would have to go to an out-of-state school if I can’t stay here,” she said. “I have been going to UM football games dressed up in UM paraphernalia since I was a little girl. I could never leave here and become a Gator or a Seminole.”
Suaris’ father, Dr. Wimal Suaris, is a professor in the engineering school at UM and her older brother graduated last year. As a member of Sigma Lambda Gamma National Latino Sorority, Suaris says she will miss spending time with her sisters after May 2011 commencement. Her other campus involvement includes being member of the Filipino Students Association and serving on the E-Board of the Multi-ethnic Greek Council.
The most rewarding part of serving as SAFAC chair is getting to witness the success of the organizations on campus made possible by SAFAC funding. SAFAC is also a great opportunity for exposing yourself to the variety of activities and clubs UM has to offer.
“It’s like being a freshman at Canefest all over again,” Suaris said.
For more information on SAFAC email Melanie Suaris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hannah Romig may be contacted at email@example.com.