Q&A: Olivia Cyman explains student engagement, goals as city commissioner

Photo Illustration: Senior Olivia Cyman poses in Moore Hall studio on Feb. 1.

Sitting in denial on Nov. 4, Olivia Cyman could not believe that she won. 

She said the fact that people voted for her to be a Mount Peasant City Commissioner seemed crazy at the time. But the hard work during her campaign paid off. It was time to step into a new role.

Cyman is the newest and youngest city commissioner. In addition to her new responsibilities, the 23-year-old is taking classes at Central Michigan University. Regardless, Cyman said she aims to spark positive change and improve the lives of her neighbors.

Central Michigan Life spoke with Cyman about her goals as a commissioner, her connection to Mount Pleasant and how she intends to juggle her responsibilities.

How do you balance being a city commissioner and being a student?

“I am in four classes at CMU. I'm a senior, so they're relatively high level. Most of them are finishing up my sociology degree. It's really heavy reading, but I'm interested in them, so I enjoy it. 

I try to schedule out my time as much as I can. I'm really structured and I depend on the routine. I probably work on academics in class about 45 to 30 hours a week. Then, depending on whether I have meetings for the commission that week, I'll be working on (city commission) for about three to 10 hours a week. I also work a part-time job about 30 hours a week. I just structure it out the best I can. I've had multiple responsibilities for a large portion of my college career, so that part isn't really new for me.”

What do you want to accomplish in this period looking forward? What have you accomplished so far?

"Ultimately, my main goal as a City Commissioner is to make wealth, housing, employment, opportunity, and growth more accessible to all residents in Mount Pleasant. I want to help ensure we maintain a community that works for everyone and improve the quality of life for everyone. Once I learned the ropes, I'm excited to use my skills and experiences to get people more involved in the political process. 

I haven't had any big accomplishments yet. I've only gone to two meetings. We have voted on a mayor and vice mayor. We also voted to approve the airport joint operations and management agreement, which is an agreement between partners relating to the airport, and that is a huge part of our city. We voted to waive the 3% penalty on unpaid city taxes between Feb. 17 and March 1. I've contributed to a few things so far and I’m learning and I'm excited to do more things.”

What made you want to stay in Mt. Pleasant?

I'm from Metro Detroit. I grew up in the suburbs, and I have a lot of love for my hometown. I'm really grateful for where I came from but I have learned that I really love living in a small town. However, we can't really call ourselves a small town, not all the time. I think we're more dynamic than that, which is part of the reason why I love it so much. I always tell people who haven't been to Mount Pleasant that it's small enough to go out and see people, but big enough to never be bored...

I love the dynamic makeup of our city. We have people who have lived here their whole lives, they know the area like the back of their hand. Then we have a large population of students, we call them part-time residents, but they're here a large part of the year, they bring different backgrounds, different perspectives on things, and skills and experiences. They contribute that to the community.

How do we get students more engaged in the Mount Pleasant community?

Getting involved in student government and student organizing is what got me here. My advice would be to find groups on campus where there are like-minded people, who work towards the same goals. Find a community where there are people that are passionate about the things that you're passionate about. Engage Central, I think is a really good resource for that. If it's politics you're interested in, I know that there are student groups for the political parties, or join the local parties. Student voices are super valuable...

Being in this position, I'm really eager to get more students involved. I hope that I can be a good resource for students to reach out to. I'm still learning how to get more students here, but I hope that I can be a resource for students who are interested in (local government.) I'm happy to assist them with the steps to getting them here.

Do you ever feel intimidated as the new commissioner or as the youngest commissioner?

Being introverted, it can be scary but being the youngest doesn't really bother me. I'm used to being the young person that has a voice and I have become okay with that. I understand that being a student, I can still have a valuable voice and I’m valuable because of those things, even though I have to remind myself of that sometimes.

Being new is intimidating. But I ask a lot of questions, which I think is a skill that sort of compensates for that. I'm comfortable asking questions and I love learning and that gets me through it. Imposter syndrome is really frequent and strong for me but I know that I'm here for a reason and I have a lot of support around me. Even though I'm a quiet, introverted person, I get really passionate about things. I have no problem being vocal and standing up for what I believe is right, even when it's not the popular decision. Being passionate, lets me overcome (fear) easily.

What is your plan after this phase in your life?

I don't really know. I like to use my experiences to improve social and economic conditions wherever I am. I feel that this was a stepping stone for that, whether I continue to do this or whether I go on to other things, I think this is my first step in doing that whether I stay here, I pursue sociology, or law, or politics. I have been politically active for a long time. I know that wherever I go from here, I will continue to be active politically.  I'm really satisfied with where I am now, but whether I stay or whether I go on to something else, I think this is just the first step.

What positions or instances lead you to prepare for this moment in your life?

I talk a lot about my experiences at CMU, I got politically active there. That's where I got passionate about these things. I started off in (SGA) and doing student organizing as well and I think those gave me the skills to get here and gave me the skills that I'll use in this position. I think my academics specifically were a big part of my preparation. Studying sociology has inspired a passion for me and helped me learn a lot about social problems and historical, economic, political context for inequality. I think my knowledge has been really valuable on the commission and making Mount Pleasant a safer and more equitable place for everyone.

What keeps you motivated during this time? What pushes you or challenges you as a person?

What motivates me I think is just my excitement. I get to work towards improving my community. I feel like I get to use my skills that I gained through academics and CMU that I worked really hard to gain. I've been here for six and a half years, and I get to apply my skills to make my community a better place. That's a huge motivator for me. I always need to be doing my job effectively and responsibly to make sure I am holding true to the goals that I have and the values I have, which is a big motivator. What challenges me as a person, especially with doing an effective job and being responsible at what I do. I hold myself to a pretty high standard I think and I understand that every decision that I make, everything I vote on, everything I say has an effect on people's lives. That's a lot of pressure and that's really challenging, but it's incredible and I'm really grateful to have that.