October 12, 2021


Balanced Approach: A Conversation With SGA President Watfae Zayed

Watfae Zayed studies neuroscience at DePaul, serves as Student Government Association president and a mentor, and teaches Arabic at her mosque. She joins the podcast to share how the pandemic has changed her as a leader, her own shift in career path, and how she balances all her responsibilities while still prioritizing a good night’s sleep.



Just to be able to bring my perspective and especially the way this past year and a half has affected me as a student of color to this role and to help other students kind of navigate it is something I'm like really looking forward to this upcoming year.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul download. I'm your host Linda Blakely, vice president for University marketing and communications. As we return to campus, students are continuing to see how the pandemic has changed higher education and the world around them. Here on our campus, we're experiencing these changes, as well as preparing for a leadership transition as this is Dr. Esteban's last year as university president. I wanted to discuss this time of transformation with a student leader who is supporting her peers and serving as a voice and advocate for them during the presidential search. Watfae Zayed is a senior studying neuroscience and president of the Student Government Association. She joins us today to talk about coming back to campus, the challenges and rewards of being a student leader and her own shift and career path during the last year. Welcome, Watfae.

WATFAE ZAYED: Hi, thank you for having me.

LINDA BLAKLEY: We're going to talk about the presidential search and find out a little bit more about you. But first, I'd love to know, what's it like being back on campus? Tell us about your first few days back.

WATFAE ZAYED: Being back on campus feels amazing. A year and a half online was definitely not what anyone wanted. So to be back and to see friends and to learn from a professor in person, it's an irreplaceable feeling. And it's definitely an adjustment. I mean, it's different than sitting in front of like a Zoom screen or having asynchronous classes, where you're trying to balance the workload. It's a lot more challenging in a way kind of adjusting to things in person. But it's also just kind of getting back to normal. But it's nice. The social scene is great, being able to go to campus events again, see people again, being able to kind of go back to normal and pretend the past year and a half didn't really happen and kind of transition to what school is like before 2020 hit.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You're serving as a mentor for a Chicago Quarter class for first year students and a mentor with the College Access program. What questions or concerns are you hearing from them?

WATFAE ZAYED: For Chicago quarter, all the students are just excited to be back and in the social scene of things. But it's been a little bit difficult, adjusting to workload. A lot of the concerns have just been with balancing classes, especially because they had their senior year of high school online and senior year is typically a more chill year anyway. So adjusting to an entirely new environment, a completely different workload, especially after a year and a half of being basically off of school. And for College Access, that is more of a mentorship thing. So we read college papers, and do essay editing for students that are applying to the university. And something I'm noticing just through everyone's papers is that everyone went through their own experiences this past year, and everyone brings something different to the colleges that they're applying to. There isn't one way to describe what everyone has gone through the past year and a half, and it definitely shows through those papers and even through like the students I'm interacting with through Chicago Quarter. So everyone's adjusting in the way that they see fit. But what I'm hearing for the most part is, it's definitely a challenge. But it's a challenge that everyone's open to navigating. And no one's really shutting down yet, which is a good thing.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It's a very good thing. I know I keep reminding myself that the world has changed. And so have we. And we have to be mindful of that as we meet these new challenges together. So being a student leader at a time of deep and lasting change in higher education and in society must be challenging. How are you feeling about being a leader right now?

WATFAE ZAYED: Being a leader at this point in time is definitely challenging. I feel like every day is something different, and not in a bad way necessarily. It's just, it's a lot. And we're all students. So my entire cabinet, every time we meet, we bring up all these problems that we don't even know if we have the capacity to take on just because we're students balancing a bunch of other things as well. But to be a leader right now, I feel like is going to provide me with a lot of growth. I was vice president last year and even from the beginning of last year to the end, I noticed a lot of changes in my perspective, changes in the way I see the world, I see higher education. So I'm kind of expecting to continue that growth this year in this role. But I'm happy I'm in a position like this, where I can bring my own experiences through it all and use that to hopefully better the environment at DePaul. I'm a student of color. I'm also a minority student. So just to be able to bring my perspective, and especially the way this past year and a half as affected me, as a student of color, to this role, and to help other students kind of navigate it. That's something I'm really looking forward to the upcoming year.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So you're a mentor, SGA president, you teach Arabic at your mosque, and you're taking classes. How do you balance all of these responsibilities? And I'm wondering, when do you sleep?

WATFAE ZAYED: Balancing it? At first it was a challenge. I am someone that like lives by my planner. So my planner, I have it divided by the hour. So every hour like will be whatever I have to do, whether it's a meeting, or volunteering or teaching or something like that. But I think the biggest thing for me, and the reason I like keeping myself busy those things is because it's a balance for me. Teaching Arabic is something I enjoy. Not saying I don't enjoy school, but it's a different type of feeling to be able to do that. And it's different to be able to volunteer at my mosque. It keeps me in check with my culture and my religion because I feel like a lot of times, at school, throughout like SGA other things that I have responsibilities for, it's easy to forget about those things, even though they're very important to me. So although it's a busy life, it's something that I really value just because I'm able to keep very important parts of my identity within my life. In terms of sleeping, I'm someone that believes firmly and you get seven, eight hours of sleep, regardless of the work you have to do. So if my work is not done, I know that if I don't sleep, I'm not going to be, not a good person necessarily, but I'm not going to be a happy person the next day. I'd rather just like sleep and deal with everything else the next day because the problem will still be there tomorrow. But if I don't sleep, then I'm going to have another problem on top of that. A lot of it's just planning and having specific time to everything and then prioritizing my sleep. I feel like that's helped me get through a lot of what I have to go through and deal with.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Self-care is so very important. And I'm glad that you're thinking about that. A big responsibility this year is serving on DePaul's Presidential Search Committee. Students are an essential voice in that search. What did you share with the search committee about what you and other students want to see in new leadership?

WATFAE ZAYED: The presidential search this year is definitely something I wasn't expecting going into the SGA president role. And it threw me off a lot over summer when I found out that that is something I'd be dealing with throughout the year. But something I think a lot of people are forgetting is that students make up a majority of DePaul. You know, we have roughly 20,000 students. And I think a lot of times, those students voices don't get heard. Their opinions don't get listened to. And at the end of the day, we're like the main funders of the university as well. I feel like there's a lot of weight on my shoulders with this presidential search. But so far I've mentioned specifically that issue about our new president needs to be willing to listen to students, be willing to sit with student groups. President Esteban comes to our SGA meetings once a year. But the president should be going to other student groups, and more than once a year, preferably. I mentioned that, in particular, the involvement, but also just the education about the people that go to your institution. For example, I'm a Palestinian, Muslim student. And I feel like a lot of times, the Paul and kind of like everywhere I go, but since I'm here, most of the time, as a part of my history, my story, my culture is not necessarily like taught to other people. And it's also no one's like willing to learn it. So for me, the responsibility falls on me to teach people, and the president of the university and administration of a university in general should know about the different students that they have at their university and know what makes them comfortable and know what makes them unsafe, know about their history, know about, you know, their country. by year, we had a lot of issues happening in Palestine, and it affected the mental health of a lot of Palestinian and also Arab students in general. And it was during finals time. So we didn't really have the support of the university. We had to kind of take matters into our own hands to ask for accommodation. Some professors are willing to give accommodation, some were not. So that was another main concern I mentioned with looking for a new president, looking for a new leader of the university, they need to know not just like textbook knowledge, but also knowledge of the world and of the students within their school. So those are the two main things. I know a lot of students are frustrated just from the past couple years, with the pandemic, with a bunch of other things going on in the world, and how DePaul handled it. And I'm very hopeful that our next president is willing to hear those students' concerns and see kind of what happened the past couple years and help us grow and transition out of it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So along those same lines, imagine you're sitting down with the presidential candidates, what would you tell them, they need to know about DePaul to be successful?

WATFAE ZAYED: If I was sitting with the presidential candidate, and I wanted to tell them something they should know about DePaul, I think it would be that they have a group of 20,000 very passionate students, students that care about their education, students that care about the world, students that care about the workers at the university, our dining workers, our staff, our faculty. We care a lot about everyone here. And with that being said, there's accountability with that. So if we see things not going the way they should be or we see things not being dealt with in the most fair way, students will respond. And it's a great thing that we do, it's a great thing we're able to organize and that we care so much. But I would want our president to know that we care and we expect whoever they are to care as well. We're a very diverse group. We bring a lot of different stories to the table, we bring a lot of different histories. And that all shaped who we are and our experiences and the passion that we have and the drive that we have. And I would want our like next president to know that and know that with that, we won't really like sit back. We're not a lazy group of students. We are very proactive. And we want to be involved. And we want to see like our president by our side in that involvement.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, thank you for sharing. For the last part of our conversation, I want to hear a little bit more about your plans for the future. I understand you went through a bit of a career shift during the pandemic, and you're now going to pursue a master's in nursing at DePaul. Tell me about the moment you decided to make that change.

WATFAE ZAYED: My plan is to pursue a master's in Nursing at DePaul, starting in January. I came into DePaul knowing I wanted to do something in healthcare. And I was originally on the pre-physician assistant track. So that's a very intense program. And I noticed that throughout the process of taking classes, worrying about applications, my mental health took a huge hit. It's a lot of pressure to put on students to decide what they want to do in general, and on top of that, the application. And if your grades aren't good enough, then you got to do this, you got that and it's just a lot. And I realized that for me, that might not be the healthiest job for me to go down. Especially because as the application process ends, the stress only progresses with PA school. But I was weighing my options, and I've personally been a patient in hospitals before. And something that I realized is that it wasn't the doctor or the PA that made my experience an okay one. I don't want to say enjoyable because it was not, but an okay experience. And it was the nurses that did that. The nurses were there 24/7. I was never left alone without like a nurse there. And I felt okay that my parents weren't there because the nurses were there to help me. I felt comfortable with them. They respected me, they respected my culture. And I realized that someone like me who wears hijab, who comes from a minority community, I want to be able to advocate for other patients like me. Because a lot of times, like I mentioned earlier, our history is not taught and our culture is not taught. So being able to kind of teach people that and do it within that role is something that I'm really looking forward to. So that shift happen right before the pandemic and as a pandemic progressed, I realized I made such a good decision because our nurses are amazing. I can't even understand what it would have felt like to deal with the things they were dealing with and still dealing with. So, I'm really excited. When it comes to religion, I know that whatever path I take is one that God wanted me to take. And so for me, I feel like I was on the wrong path throughout my first couple years at DePaul, which is why it didn't feel okay and my mental health wasn't doing great and I felt uncomfortable. And once I switched I think I was on the past like you know God and like the universe want me to take because I felt a lot better. And I know it's gonna be a challenge. I know any grad program is, but I feel a lot more confident in my ability to handle.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you for sharing that. As someone who's been a patient and has been blessed by wonderful nursing, I know exactly what you experienced. I have a sister who's a nurse, who is also good egg, as they say. Her patients always come first. So I'm glad that you've had that self-discovery and are taking that path next. Again, really appreciate you sharing that.

WATFAE ZAYED: Thank you.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So this is your senior quarter. What are you hoping to enjoy or relish in your last quarter as an undergraduate? Are there any events or celebrations you are looking forward to?

WATFAE ZAYED: This is my senior quarter. And I'm really excited just to kind of take it all in before grad school starts. But something from before COVID, I was really regretful about was not getting involved as much. Obviously, I did SGA but I wasn't really on campus for other events because I was a commuter student. Now I'm living pretty close to campus. So I'm trying to take advantage of every event I can go to, every OSI event, every DAB event, of event, every like dinner, just anything that really comes up, I'm just trying to go to everything, take it all in, enjoy it while I'm able to. So nothing really set in stone about like big plans or things I'm looking forward to, I'm just excited to get involved and go to everything I'm able to go to, without like having to worry about like the commute home or timings and things like that. I just want to soak it all in during my last quarter. 

LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, we wish you all the best what we hope to hear more from you soon. Thank you for being on the podcast.

WATFAE ZAYED: Thank you for having me.

LINDA BLAKLEY: For more updates on the Presidential Search and opportunities to provide input, check the Office of the Secretary's Presidential Search web page. I'm Linda Blakely, thank you for listening to another episode of DePaul download presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.