By Samantha Dietel, Editor in Chief
Two former West Bend students have partnered in a run for office.
Lauren Sorensen and Alyssa Birkeland, 2016 graduates of West Bend East High School, declared their candidacy for senior class office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison March 1. If they win the election, which runs Tuesday through Thursday, Sorensen will serve as class president with Birkeland as her vice president.
Birkeland says that when she heard her friend planned to run for class president, she thought it was only obvious to join Sorensen on the ballot.
“We both knew we are powerful together and complement each other beautifully,” Sorensen said.
Though Sorensen and Birkeland were friends in high school, it was not until their senior year that they became close. They frequently spent time together due to their shared extracurricular activities, such as student council, National Honor Society and the West Bend Current. Sorensen even served as the Current’s editor in chief during the 2015-16 school year.
Their time in college has also expanded their friendship. Now, Sorensen is studying French and political science while also working to earn a certificate in African studies. Birkeland, on the other hand, is double majoring in political science and management and human resources, in addition to pursuing a certificate in Spanish.
The two also come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Sorensen’s liberal ideology contradicts Birkeland’s conservative views, but this has not stopped them from partnering for senior class office.
“This office is not supposed to be political and instead should revolve around uniting together under our common identity as Badgers,” Sorensen said. “We feel that what makes us politically opposite makes us more representative of the senior class and all of its diversity. With all of the conflict in the world, graduation should be about coming together, not being torn apart.”
Sorensen says that the main role of the class president is to plan the winter and spring commencements. She has chosen to run for this position because she thinks it is the best way for her to give back to the university that she feels has given her so much.
“I am so grateful I have had the opportunity to attend UW-Madison and receive the world-class education it is famous for,” Sorensen said. “Also, it is my senior year of college and being able to help orchestrate this final year on campus for me and my fellow Badgers would be such a privilege.”
Mark Drake, a social studies teacher at West High School, hopes that if Sorensen and Birkeland are elected, they will bring about positive change to UW-Madison. Drake had both Sorensen and Birkeland in his Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics course. Both also took Drake’s World Affairs class as well.
“Alyssa and Lauren were two of my brightest students,” Drake said. “I’m very proud that they’ve taken some thoughts and expertise from this class and used it for good things in college, and I wish them much success.”
Sorensen says that she could not have done this without Birkeland. Because Sorensen is currently studying abroad in Senegal, Birkeland has been alone on campus to promote their campaign.
“(Lauren) is definitely doing as much as she can from that end, with a lot of the social media and planning, so I mean she’s definitely still helping out a lot,” Birkeland said. “It is a little tricky with her being gone, but I’ve just had a little slack to pick up, but I’m happy to do it.”
Sorensen will be returning to the U.S. in May after spending two semesters in Senegal. Her program, which is administered by the University of Minnesota, focuses on the rights of women and children in Senegal. Thus far, she has stayed with two different host families: one for six weeks while she had an internship in a rural area, and one for the rest of the time that she has been in Dakar, Senegal’s capital.
“I absolutely love my host families, I cannot even describe how welcoming they have been,” Sorensen said. “In the U.S. I am an only child, but now I have seven sisters.”
Sorensen has an internship in Dakar with a group of female lawyers that works for human rights protections, particularly those of women. She is also completing independent research for a political science thesis. Her experience in Senegal has allowed her to sharpen her skills in French and Wolof, the native language of the Senegalese people.
Beyond developing acute bargaining skills at the market, Sorensen says she has developed a deeper understanding and appreciation of Islam.
“Growing up in West Bend, my contact with Islam was limited to the extremist and shallow presentation shown in American media,” Sorensen said. “Being in Senegal, which has a 95 percent Muslim population, has completely shattered and rebuilt my understanding of the religion.”
She went on to explain that she has been fortunate to have host families that are willing to answer her questions about their religious beliefs. Because of their openness, Sorensen says that she is able to learn rather than assume.
“I have learned what it is like to live in a truly collectivist society,” Sorensen said. “I have learned what it is like to work in an NGO in rural Senegal. Practically every minute of the day I can learn something new. I have also learned about myself, my values and how strong I am.”
Update: Sorensen and Birkeland won the election and will serve as UW-Madison’s senior class president and vice president for 2019-2020.