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Hitting the wall: Solomon Ni on burnout, mental health and ‘kicking back’

Former SA president Solomon Ni poses for a portrait on Jan. 29. He announced his resignation last week, citing mental health concerns. Francesca Nemati / Thresher

By Sarah Knowlton     1/30/24 11:22pm

When the highlight of Solomon Ni’s week became leading the Student Association’s meetings, he knew he needed to quit.

“There were points where the only social interaction I would have was with the college presidents’ cohort in our weekly meetings, or in our Senate meetings that happen every week,” Ni, a Jones College junior, said. “I didn’t have any room to go to other people. It’s unfortunate whenever you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so excited to go to this meeting because I’ll finally be able to talk to people.’”

Ni announced their resignation at one such Senate meeting on Jan. 22, citing the mental health issues they were diagnosed with in fall of 2023. Ni said that he was prescribed medication for depression and anxiety, but that he still experienced what he now recognizes as burnout. At the time, however, they said they were unable to identify the growing problem because of a lack of information on what burnout can look like.

“No one’s seeing the cases where someone does burn out. No one is emphasizing that. In my case, I guess I did,” Ni said. “My hope is that, at least in my example, people know what signs to look for. In particular, I think one of the biggest ones is losing connections with other people. 

“I felt like I was running 100 miles per hour. When you’re going that fast, you can’t really stop until you hit a wall,” Ni continued. “When you hit that wall, you realize that you realize everything that you left behind you.” 

During the 2023 SA election cycle, every candidate — including Ni — ran uncontested for their position. Ni’s race saw a slight upset with 22% of votes going to the Thresher Backpage’s satirical write-in candidate, Dilf Hunter. Voter turnout was just 15.02%, a historic low which Student Association director of elections Jocelyn Wang attributed to the lack of competition for the position. 

Ni said that the scant participation contributed to student perception of the SA as ineffective and reduced confidence in the organization.

“I really was coming into a Student Association where there wasn’t a lot of faith put into it, for very good reason,” Ni said. “We weren’t really doing the job that we were entrusted to do, and that’s something that I really wanted to change.”

When he began his term, Ni found himself surprised by the amount of work falling into his lap. Campaigning, Ni said, or even serving on the executive committee — Ni was previously the SA treasurer — did not adequately prepare him for the pressures of the job.

This problem wasn’t contained to the SA presidency, Ni said. Other student leaders were experiencing the same thing.

“I think this even goes beyond just student government [or] college government. I will go to a lecture class and literally half the students around me are working on something for their club or for their extracurricular,” Ni said. “I don’t know of one student leader where I have talked to them and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I feel like I don’t have enough work or I feel like I’m at a good amount of work.’”

Student leadership positions have not always been so arduous, Ni said. From previous presidents and student leaders, they learned that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the amount of work that student leaders were expected to take on.

“I think that that tipping point was definitely COVID,” Ni said. “I know that at least anecdotally, … [student leaders] were in a unique situation, and there were a lot of responsibilities that were placed upon them by the administration [and] by the dean of undergraduates.”

Ni said that Rice administration added to the obligations that were expected of him.

“Sometimes whenever it comes to being elected as a student leader, you are called upon to be like an unpaid focus group for the administration,” Ni added. “In that way, maybe it would be better to just have them focus-group people for some of the initiatives and proposals that they want.”

The financial compensation — or lack thereof — for student government members was another significant issue for Ni. Given the amount of effort required to hold such a position, the SA’s lack of remuneration felt dismissive of the students’ labor, he said.

“Student government is like a job. It’s something that people invest their time in, not because it’s fun or because it’s a resume builder,” Ni said. “What is the value of my work if I’m not being paid for it? What is the value of anyone’s work if they’re not being compensated for it? 

“There were definitely some moments where I [thought], ‘Is this even worth my time to do? Is this a lost cause?’ At those points, I was like, ‘Maybe I should just resign and let it burn,’” Ni said. “But I had this unnerving obligation to just see it through because I was the only one that stood up to do [the job].”

Before their resignation, Ni made a few changes to try to alleviate the risk of burnout for future student leaders. One of his final acts as president was the passing of Senate Resolution 17, which requires presidents to meet with both the SA advisor and an academic advisor during their term to assist in academic planning and stress management. 

Through the trials and tribulations of their term, Ni said that they hoped to represent the student body regardless of the circumstances.

“You don’t want to let down the community that chose you to lead them,” Ni said.“I don’t know if Dilf Hunter would have done better, but we’ll never know, I guess.”

Going forward, Ni said that he plans to enjoy his newfound free time and rebuild his support system.

“I will be chilling. I will be kicking back and relaxing. I will be taking time for myself and reaching out to the people that I haven’t talked to in a while,” Ni said. “I hope that everyone else is able to do that as well.”

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