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Secular students receive top honor 

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SSA affiliate takes road trip to attend national conference

The UNLV Secular Student Alliance (SSA) — one of the newer student organizations on campus — has been named the 2012 Best Collegiate Affiliate Group by the national organization at its annual conference.

The honor is a first for the chapter in its near four-year history. There are over 360 SSA affiliates worldwide.

“[The award] means a lot to us,” said Michael Gobaud, a former UNLV SSA president who attended the conference. “It just kind of validates all of the restructuring efforts that I and others put into place and everything [we] thought would save the group. It’s nice to know that you were successful.”

Fledgling at its start, the UNLV SSA struggled to find interested students, and with low membership, found difficulty in getting the organization off the ground.

“The group had died and had zero activity for about six months,” Gobaud said. “Everyone just kind of gave up on the idea.”

But after Gobaud became president in January 2011, he decided to lead a relaunch of the UNLV SSA — a group for students who do not believe in, or who question the existence of God, such as those who identify as atheist or agnostic.

Gobaud, who graduated from UNLV with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 2010, was one of three speakers in the group from UNLV, giving a presentation about recruitment and retention.

Annie Erlandson, current president of the UNLV SSA, said because America is largely religious with 90 percent of its population believing in God, the group promotes open conversation of countering opinions.

“We like to to think of ourselves primarily as a safe spot for students who don’t believe in God,” she said. “A lot of times for skeptical students, it’s hard to find people who share their beliefs.”

Erlandson, a philosophy major in her senior year, has been a member of the student organization since its relaunch and has been president since January.

Formed in 2009, UNLV SSA did not become active until Gobaud’s presidency when it started holding regular weekly meetings. Currently, the affiliate has approximately 100 registered members and sees an average of almost 30 to 40 people per week at their meetings.

The national SSA conference features speakers well known in atheist and secular communities, including professionals and student leaders from various affiliate groups.

There were approximately 300 SSA conference attendees, 17 of which were from UNLV — the highest number within one group of all affiliates at the meeting.

Traveling 34 hours over the course of two days, the group took a road trip to the three-day conference in Columbus, Ohio. They stayed in dorms at Ohio State University, where the national SSA is headquartered and holds its conferences each year.

The SSA is hoping to create solidarity between neighboring affiliates through closer ties.

“One of the biggest things that [UNLV SSA members] were focusing on during this conference is regionalization,” Erlandson said.

UNLV’s SSA is looking to lead the establishment of their region by bringing in other SSA affiliates from Southern Nevada, California, Arizona and Utah.

Erlandson and Gobaud said the conference is a great opportunity for networking.

Now studying at the William S. Boyd School of Law, Gobaud hopes to practice constitutional law once he graduates, specifically First Amendment issues. He said the field is highly sought after and difficult to get into.

“Some of those leading attorneys who do specialize in [constitutional law] took my resume and I’m on the radar now,” he said.

Though the UNLV SSA does not hold official meetings during the summer, they have a social event once a month so participants don’t lose touch.

Gobaud said the organization creates strong bonds between its members, who sometimes don’t have relationships with their families because of differing views on religion.

“Having a safe place like the Secular Student Alliance I think really provides something that people need,” he said. “I’m really proud that I was able to facilitate a place like that [at UNLV.]”

The UNLV SSA meets Tuesdays at 7 p.m. in room 205 of the Student Union during the academic year. Membership fees are $10.

Contact Fantasi Pridgon at [email protected]

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