When international relations senior Lorenzo Santavicca ran for undergraduate student body president as a sophomore, the Associated Students of Michigan State University, or ASMSU, weren’t expecting “the underdog” to win, he said.
“He’s not qualified.” “He hasn’t understood enough of the organization.” “He’s too young.” And the primary reaction: “He doesn’t understand.”
“That couldn’t have been farther from the truth,” Santavicca said.
Two years later, Santavicca is the first person in the history of the organization to have served back-to-back terms.
“I built up such a strong base of knowledge about how Michigan State University works and how it doesn't work,” Santavicca said. “And that gave me the self-confidence in saying, ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about, I know what I’m doing.’”
Path to the presidency
“Little did I know that this organization, ASMSU, exists. And that I would be in this role today.”
When Santavicca chose to attend MSU, he wasn’t aware ASMSU, the organization he would one day lead, existed. In fact, he wasn’t even considering joining the undergraduate student government at all.
But student government was always something he was involved in — he started as a member in student council in fourth grade, which was something he didn’t actually want to do, but his parents told him to get involved in a school club. In fifth grade, he was elected vice president of the student council.
“I wasn’t really sure what that meant or what that did,” Santavicca said.
His involvement continued through middle school and high school.
After two weeks of being in MSU’s James Madison College, he felt the urge to get back into student government. He found out about ASMSU, and throughout his freshman and sophomore years at the organization, he worked with academic affairs, and realized he enjoyed that more than governmental relations.
ASMSU Chief of Staff Lauren Fish, who started in the organization at the same time as Santavicca, said he was one of her first friends at MSU.
"He was actually the one to encourage me to keep moving on with ASMSU,” Fish said.
During his sophomore year, a few of his mentors in ASMSU’s Office of the President, the group of students who lead the organization, told him to run for the presidency. Santavicca said it felt right, and he went on to become the first junior ever to be elected.
His competitor in his first election was Bryn Williams, a junior at the time who served as the Vice President for Governmental Affairs while Santavicca was the Vice President for Academic Affairs in the Office of the President.
Santavicca said if Williams had gotten elected, he would have supported him in academic affairs. And Williams had strengths in governmental affairs that Santavicca didn’t have, but he left.
“I admired the work that he did, I still admire him,” Santavicca said. “We haven’t talked since the election, though, and I miss that. He was a good friend of mine.”
Pressures of the first year
“People expect you to be a perfect person in any elected position. And that’s just not quite the reality.”
Last year, Santavicca and the rest of the Office of the President attended an international conference of student governments, where they gave a presentation on crisis and communication in reference to Santavicca’s first semester as president.
“We told the story about us as a student government, of what we did,” Santavicca said.
The fall semester of 2016 was a distinctive moment for ASMSU. And many representatives and Office of the President members remember it well.
“I still, to this day, wish that we would’ve handled the fall semester of my first term differently. I still think about that quite often,” Santavicca said. “I wish that we would have figured out a better way to engage students when we don’t have an issue at hand, just to build a better relationship with them, to realize that there are those small issues that happen that we need to be able to get feedback on.”
Representative Ryan Aridi remembers his first ASMSU meeting, where Culturas de las Razas Unidas, or CRU, the Latinx student group on campus, protested the deletion of comments made on the ASMSU Facebook page.
In the fall, ASMSU invited the four U.S. presidential candidates to campus and posted the invitation letters on Facebook. Because of the deleted comments, CRU felt like their group was silenced by ASMSU, the organization that was supposed to represent them.
“We had people coming to us saying, ‘What are you doing? This is not our student government, this is your student government,’” Santavicca said. “And that’s not the way it should ever be.”
In all of this, his vice president for internal administration, Jason Porter, resigned.
“I was dealing with challenges with, at that point of time, whether or not it made sense for us to keep me in the position,” Santavicca said.
But Aridi said Santavicca handled this situation professionally.
“Throughout the whole thing, it seems like Lorenzo has this whole embodiment of professionalism,” Aridi said. “He has this presidential demeanor, most of everything he does is very thought through."
Around this time, Katherine “Cookie” Rifiotis came along, who is now Santavicca’s successor. With her outgoing nature and engagement efforts, she helped bring in the biggest influx of people interested in becoming a part of the ASMSU general assembly in the spring.
That spring, ASMSU also brought home the International Student Government of the Year award. Santavicca said both of these successes came out of the challenges of the fall semester.
"It was an amazing experience being on the Office of the President with Lorenzo last year, even through the ups and downs … just seeing him grow from that first semester was amazing,” Fish said.
After completing his first term as president, he ran again — this time, unopposed. He would go on to become the first and only ASMSU president in history to have served two terms.
“The State News really put a lot of pressure on me because it was every day, every week there was a new headline about ASMSU, about Lorenzo,” Santavicca said. “People read that. And for me, I think people saw, ‘Well God, he could weather that storm? Put him through another year.’”
Balancing two separate identities
“The reality is that in this role, you are always seen as the president.”
Rifiotis said she applauds Santavicca every time she sees him going to his classes.
“It's this running joke that we forget the ‘student’ part of the ‘student leader,’” Rifiotis said. “But I think that's how he does it, merging everything in one. His co-workers, his best friends, his predecessor, his roommate. He merged all of that in one and said, ‘I’m not going to distinguish between work and play.’”
In bed by 11 p.m., up by 7 a.m. That’s what he learned from a predecessor — and despite 40 plus hours in the office every week, media interviews, keeping up with academics, meetings after meetings and leading a student government, he has stayed with this advice throughout his presidency.
But balancing his identity as a student and his identity as the student body president has been difficult. Santavicca said one of the hardest challenges has been stepping out of this role.
“You’re never seen as ‘Lorenzo the person,’ you’re seen as ‘Lorenzo the president,’” Santavicca said. “And it’s a very difficult task sometimes to wear that hat all the time. Sometimes I just want to go out and be just the average student that doesn’t care.”
Rifiotis has known Santavicca as a classmate in James Madison College, a co-worker, a mentor and a friend.
"Every Friday, we would be the only ones there (in the office) after 6 or 7 p.m. He would come into my office and we would just debrief the whole week,” Rifiotis said. “And you can totally tell when he was ‘suit off’ — just kind of himself."
Another hurdle for Santavicca was learning to deal with the press. In his role, he said he learned people were going to judge everything he said. And for a while, he took everything very personally.
“Do I actively attack the press for something that I’ve said? No, not now. I think for a while there I was pretty bitter, because in the fall semester, specifically, every day it was throwing something else at me. I was like, ‘OK, when is it going to stop?’” Santavicca said. “Honest to God, it was one of the hardest things for me to handle. But what it helped me realize is that that’s the life of a public servant. You are held accountable by everyone that you represent.”
He said throughout his presidency, stress from classes and mental health have only added to the complications of being a leader.
“I’ve quite literally dedicated my two years in this role to everything about the students,” Santavicca said. “And one thing that I’ll say about that is, I am a student just like you.”
Passing the baton
“Do I think I’m a good leader? I mean, I think that it just depends on if the people around me have stayed with me. And I’ve got an incredible few that have stood with me since freshman year. They believe in me, and I believe in them.”
When it comes to self-reflection, Santavicca doesn’t think a leader can be proven successful until after they’ve left.
“The way to know if I’m a good leader is looking at how the organization is going to handle itself next year,” Santavicca said.
As for the leaders alongside him in the Office of the President, Santavicca said he is indebted to them. And although they are all friends, and do fun things like go to the Peanut Barrel “rather regularly,” they still have an organization to take care of.
“We disagree — we very openly in our conversations together we will have Office of the President meetings where we talk about what could be coming up and we say, 'You know what?
We're going to agree on this and I'm going to disagree with you on that,'" Santavicca said.
Now, the presidency is being handed over to Rifiotis, who was elected by the general assembly on April 18.
"One of the things that marked me the most was when we had a conflict, a misunderstanding,” Rifiotis said about Santavicca. “And he came into my office and he was ready to explain himself, but instead, he just listened to everything I had to say … And that's when I realized that in any situation, I should have done the same exact thing."
Calling for change
“When that next week came and President Simon resigned, it was all very real. It was all very real.”
One of the most pivotal moments in MSU’s history was this semester, when the university began to experience an ongoing crisis. Santavicca spent winter break researching, watching the news and meeting with former President Lou Anna K. Simon. And once the national spotlight turned to MSU, he knew ASMSU would have to take a stance.
The strangest thing Santavicca said he experienced during his presidency was what he referred to as “the elephant in the room,” a dinner hosted by Simon in a room full of Big Ten student governments where she acknowledged MSU had been in the press lately.
Determined in the fall, the Association of Big Ten Student’s winter conference was hosted by MSU. On the first day, the 14 student governments had dinner with Simon. On the second day, former Athletic Director Mark Hollis spoke to the group.
The conference was held a week before victim impact statements from survivors of ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse. Now, neither Simon nor Hollis are a part of the university.
Santavicca said it was a bittersweet memory.
"To see how the organization was able to attract our conglomeration of Big Ten student governments and send them off that way I guess is a very interesting thing to end things,” Santavicca said.
Shortly after, ASMSU passed a resolution calling for a “change of leadership on campus.” The passing of this resolution and the unanimous vote from the general assembly was what Santavicca considered one of the most surreal moments in the organization.
“You know, we left it broad and things like that, but it was interpreted as President Simon needs to go,” Santavicca said.
As the president, he consistently meets with administrators. In the beginning, he wanted to wait to take a stance for the sake of his relationship with the administration. But eventually, he wanted Simon, a person he said made him a better leader, to resign.
“I think one of the hardest ways for me to say this is that it was very evident that President Simon didn't understand how this was a crisis,” Santavicca said. “In the conversations I had with her, I felt confident that this was the right move. ... We didn’t have a leader when we needed one the most at Michigan State.”
When she resigned, Santavicca didn’t know how to feel. After spending a year and a half meeting with her consistently, he wasn’t sure what was next.
“To this day, I’ll run into her at Starbucks. Her (sic) and I actually got a coffee after she resigned. I still consider her a mentor,” Santavicca said. “She spent her literal life here at Michigan State University.”
“I needed my mental health to recognize that I’m not in front of a camera.”
On the weekend after Simon’s resignation and after ASMSU held an emergency meeting in response, Santavicca said he had to leave MSU.
“For awhile there, I told my mom and dad — I said, ‘You’re going to see me in the news, but I don't want to hear about it. I don’t want to see it. I know that I’m in the news, but I don’t want to see it’,” Santavicca said. “To be in the news as much as I was, it wasn’t good press, it wasn’t for a good reason … I was so emotionally drained after.”
Seeing what was unraveling on campus as a leader, and doing more media interviews than he would have ever expected, led him to eventually tuning any mention of his name in the news out.
“I will say this, for the role that I play, I was depressed,” Santavicca said.
He took some time off, he took a trip with some friends and separated himself from what was happening. And on the day he returned, Engler was appointed as the interim president.
“I needed my mental health to recognize that I’m not in front of a camera, I’m not talking to a reporter,” Santavicca said. “I got a lot of people saying, ‘I need to talk with you.’ Well, you’re not going to talk with me. And it was weird.”
Process over resistance
“I know people are always going to disagree with half of what we do — more than half."
Some disagreed with ASMSU’s decision not to move forward with a bill that would call for the resignations of Engler and the trustees during the policy committee meeting on Feb. 22.
“He wasn’t going anywhere, he’s here. And the board, very clearly, wasn’t going anywhere either,” Santavicca said. “We were going to continue sounding like a broken record, or the boy who cried wolf, because for us, everything means so much every time we make a move.”
He said they still have the voice and the power as an organization to take a stance later if they decide they’ve lost trust in Engler’s interim presidency.
“People didn’t agree with that, it was a vocal set of individuals that believe that the only way forward is to stand against and resist,” Santavicca said. “We are a part of the process of the university, there is a true process to channel the student voice and decision-making at this university and that is through governance.”
The legacy left behind
“I would hope my legacy is that I’ve been able to inspire more people to join this organization, to be a part of the student message and the student voice for change.”
Santavicca said he has anxieties about leaving.
“I don’t have an anxiety about this organization (not being) able to do as good of a job as I did,” Santavicca said. “I hope this organization does a better job than what I did in the leadership around the president next year.”
He worries the organization will jump to conclusions without having any thoughtful dialogue or debate.
“Successful leadership is being able to have a conversation, disagree about things and set a course forward,” he said.
After graduation, Santavicca wants to transition from being a “student advocate” to a “student ally.” He’s hoping to work with the university in some capacity and is deciding whether to pursue a master's degree at MSU in higher education administration.
“I would not rule out a decision to find my way on a career path that would lead me to the presidency of an institution. Would I love to come back to Michigan State University? It’s hard to say,” Santavicca said. “I would love to come back and serve my alma mater in that form if it ever allowed, but I would love to explore what other institutions of higher education do and how they operate.”
But his time at MSU as a student has come to an end. He has faith in Rifiotis as his successor, and hopes she will do even better than he did.
“We built a better sense of value around legacy,” Santavicca said. “How do you pass that baton confidently to say, ‘You’re going to continue on this path,’ or ‘You’re going to start a new initiative,’ but know that you’re passing on many years worth of people before you that have helped you get to this point today?”
Rifiotis said elevating the organization to the respect it has across the community is Santavicca's greatest legacy.
“I hope that when I graduate, people will recognize that I’m no longer the president, but I care a lot about this place and I care a lot about people around me,” Santavicca said. “I hope that people will continue to say, ‘He’s a good friend of mine.’ That’s what I would hope the most.”