From the moment Michael Sullivan ’21 starts speaking, his love for St. Thomas and its community shines through. When we met over Zoom recently, the senior greeted me with a warm smile and explained his affinity for the university, noting his dad is a Tommie.
As a business administration major, the Hibbing, Minnesota, native was drawn to St. Thomas due to its large alumni network and the various connections it offers throughout the Twin Cities. And as someone who grew up within the Catholic faith, Sullivan said the Catholic social teaching presented at the university is important to him as well.
In his role as Undergraduate Student Government (USG) president, Sullivan is a constant presence on campus. You can also find him at the create[space] where he teaches students how to sew, use the 3-D printer and create their own designs.
Here are some highlights from our discussion where we talked about everything from his goals as undergraduate student body president to what makes him smile.
What inspired you to get involved in student government?
I was part of the student council in high school and that consisted of a lot of pep rallies, events – those types of things. I didn’t think there would be much of a difference in college. However, once I got involved and I started my first year at St. Thomas as a class senator … I realized that it’s a different picture in college. This is because you talk about things like budgeting, club funding, initiatives and how to make St. Thomas a better place for all students. This really drew me in because I felt like, “Wow, this is kind of a higher purpose.”
What is your favorite part about being involved in student government?
The opportunity to connect with other students – having conversations, getting to know people. I’m a very extroverted person, so any opportunity I have to talk with people and connect with them, I really value that.
What have you found to be the most challenging part of student government?
I think right now, especially in this time of COVID-19, it’s tougher to connect with people. Not in the sense that it’s impossible, but our office hours look different. We’re not doing as many events. One of my favorite events we did was a coffee cart, where we ordered a couple hundred donuts, coffee and hot chocolate. Then we’d go sit on the quad and talk to people. In these COVID-19 times, that’s no longer an option. The hardest part for me right now is missing a lot of those face-to-face, in-person interactions.
In what other ways has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your term as student body president and what unique approaches have you had to take as a result?
The challenges and successes are different every year and I think that’s definitely something to note. We’ve learned how to use Zoom very well. A year ago, a lot of people really didn’t know what Zoom was and it definitely wasn’t used as a verb. But we are now running meetings, voting on polls, having discussions – all over Zoom. I think it’s really an adaptation and that’s a credit to the students and our general council, not necessarily anything that I’ve done. Staying engaged is the general challenge. Some people are on campus and some people are off campus, so understanding how we do that in the world with COVID-19 presents different challenges. But we’ve taken those challenges head on and we’re doing well in my opinion.
What is one goal that you would like to achieve during your time as student body president?
The biggest one is making sure students feel that student government hasn’t gone anywhere. We’ve still seen great engagement in our general council meetings, we still meet biweekly and the executive board meets weekly. It might be on Zoom, we might not be in person, but knowing that the student government is still here to support students any way we can. In a time of so much uncertainty to know that there is something that’s certain and stable – we’re here to support students.
Besides being involved in student government, is there anything else you’ve done during your time at St. Thomas that you are proud of?
Being involved with changemaking. I’ve been fortunate to attend the Ashoka U Exchange three times. I went to Boston, San Diego and then the virtual one in Minnesota last year. In San Diego I was able to present and represent St. Thomas on student involvement in changemaking in higher education. I also was able to do a panel with four other students from across the world on how important it is to give students a seat at the table when looking at changemaking. It has been really cool to be able to represent St. Thomas and be involved on such a global stage through Ashoka U.
What is one piece of advice you would give a first-year student?
Get involved! I know it’s really cliche to say, but get involved. Whether it’s USG, any club that sparks your interest, or something that you know nothing about – don’t be afraid to get involved. I’d also say go to office hours, now held virtually, and get to know your professors and hear about their experiences. That has been one of the best things I’ve gotten from St. Thomas outside of the classroom – listening to what my professors have had to say.
What is your favorite place on campus and why?
The create[space]. I’ve worked there for four years – since it started. I’ve seen how it’s evolved from what it was in the fall of 2017 to the fall of 2020. Seeing how it has transformed, being able to engage with students and seeing how creativity and innovation meet has been cool. It’s a space where students are able to come authentically to create and explore.
Who would you say your biggest inspiration is and why?
My mom. When I was going into seventh grade, she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. It was really tough going through a lot of radiation and chemotherapy and going to the Mayo Clinic was a four-hour drive, so it was a lot. But she made it through. Seeing how she continued to teach, and to be there for her students and our family, and her perseverance – that is something that I hope to achieve and strive to be like.
What is one thing that always makes you smile?
My sister Sophia. Sophia is nonverbal … she’s 19 and every time I see her, she runs to me and gives me a hug. I also get to FaceTime her and it’s one of those things that always brightens my day. It always makes me smile, even if it’s just through my phone. She also sends me mail often. She’s my pen pal, so I send her mail back and forth as well.