Six student government presidents from the 1950s to the present reflect on their experiences representing DePaul students on campus.
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Service to war veterans. Stolen art. Controversial campus speakers. Student debt. One thing is certain: DePaul students know how to keep things interesting. One particular group—the presidents of student government—have a unique perspective on life at DePaul. Six presidents share their fascinating stories about serving students during changing times.
‘Just lucky to go to school’
“I understand what DePaul calls ‘the mission,’” says Joe (Cacioppo) Cappo (LAS ’57), 1956–57 president of the Student Activity Council (SAC) and a retired communications professional and educator at DePaul’s College of Communication. Like the thousands of students who have exemplified DePaul’s mission, Cappo was the first person in his family to attend and graduate from college.
Cappo and his classmates lived through hard times. Many came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930s and experienced World War II and the Korean War in battle or on the home front. “Those were tough, tough years.”
Cappo ran for SAC president as a way to meet people and make contacts. “There was none of the student government type of thing that they have now,” he says. The major duty of the council was to create a calendar for collegewide activities that would ensure that the groups holding events wouldn’t take attendees away from each other. Nonetheless, Cappo says, “The social aspect of [SAC], I think, was much less important to the students than the socialization aspect of getting to be with other groups from different parts of the city, different ethnic backgrounds. That was the ‘big mix’ era.”
In that mix were reminders of the previous years of trauma. “We had a strong veterans program here. A couple of people I went to school with had injuries from the Korean War,” Cappo recalls. “We didn’t have all the benefits of the [Americans with] Disabilities Act then that have since been passed.”
Student activism wouldn’t really come to DePaul until the 1960s, when “society was up in arms for a lot of different reasons,” says Cappo. “I always looked at my generation, the Silent Generation, as being not very demanding. Minimum pay, health care, women’s services are all very important to students today. They may or may not be more so than when we went to school, but we were not organized in that particular fashion. There was not a way to communicate outside of your own circle. People were just lucky to go to school—at least I was.”
‘Every issue was an 11’
The 1960s represented a crucible moment in U.S. history, as the war in Vietnam and civil rights movements ignited widespread protests, particularly on university campuses. DePaul was no exception, and the SAC moved beyond coordinating social activities. “We were a product of the ’60s,” says Steve Lustig (BUS ’67, JD ’71), 1967–68 SAC president and a financial, tax and transaction law consultant. “We tried to get a larger student voice, [but] the best advocate for it was not the students but Father Cortelyou, who was then president of the university.”
Lustig considered the Rev. John R. Cortelyou, C.M., (CSH MS ’43) a friend and mentor, appreciating his sense of balance and interest in measured progress. “On a scale of one to 10, we felt every issue was an 11,” Lustig remembers. “He was willing to listen, and if it made sense, work with us. He allowed us to move forward with things [that involved] only students. DePaul offered students a chance to get a terrific education not going page to page, chapter to chapter or book to book, but to get involved in what was going on if they wanted to.”
The SAC’s major accomplishment during Lustig’s presidency was to institute student evaluations of professors. “That was met with incredible resistance from top to bottom in the administration and in the faculty, with the exception of one person—Father Cortelyou,” Lustig says. “He sent the word out that you let these students in and let them do their evaluation even if it’s class time.” Every student in a class was given an evaluation form, and a small group of students reviewed the evaluations and submitted the results to Cortelyou and the department heads. In some cases, the evaluations resulted in substantive changes.
In keeping with the rebellious times, students also resorted to some questionable tactics to get action. “We weren’t getting the administration’s attention about safety on the Fullerton Campus,” Lustig recalls. “We finally had to hijack a piece of art that belonged to the university.” The artwork was returned only after a meeting was held to discuss the issue. “Quite frankly, I’m surprised we got away with it!”
‘I had to make up for lost time’
The 1970s marked the popular rise of business education. The 1978–79 Student Government Association (SGA) presidential election would be swayed by the influence of its Loop Campus business students, as Jerry Haderlein (BUS ’79, JD ’82) defeated Dave Lloyd (LAS ’79, JD ’82). The 1977–78 SGA president Lou Bruno (LAS ’78, JD ’81) was quoted in the DePaulia as saying, “ This is the first time the downtown campus has shown to be any kind of political force.”
The victory Haderlein, an attorney and real estate broker, scored is an object lesson in campaign strategy. “I wanted to get involved at school before I graduated,” he says. “I was a junior. I had to make up for lost time.”
His candidacy was a long shot. He had never been an elected member of SGA, and Lloyd was a political science major who had served in student government for three years.
“My strategy was to work my base, which was the downtown school,” Haderlein says. “I did all my campaigning down there. I got there very early in the morning the week before and both days of the election and handed out flyers. I had friends who were working the Lincoln Park Campus.”
Haderlein was suddenly thrust into the myriad responsibilities that accompanied his office. “I found myself as an ex officio member of the Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees. I found myself an ex offocio member of the Athletics Board,” he says. The men’s basketball program was a force, and the year Haderlein served as SGA president, the Blue Demons made it to the NCAA Final Four. “It was really an exciting time to be there,” Haderlein recalls.
As president, Haderlein faced one big issue: the administration’s plan to raise the honor graduation GPA standards immediately. “We argued as students that to do that after we began was sort of like moving the goal line in the middle of a football game,” he says. Despite strong opposition by members of the administration, his motion to grandfather in current full-time students under the old standard passed.
Haderlein also established a leadership council to try to bring the two campuses and the numerous student organizations together. “To the degree that it just got people to talk to each other and identify who was who in the organizations, I thought it had value.”
‘We all have a voice’
The activism of the ’60s and ’70s gave way to the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s. Diverse representation was starting to make headway in every aspect of campus life. In that spirit, bringing student-athletes into leadership roles was important to Maureen Amos (BUS ’90, SNL MA ’01), 1988–89 SGA president and executive director of financial aid at Northeastern Illinois University.
Amos, an avid supporter of the DePaul women’s basketball team, also was a member of the Student Athletics Board and wanted to build a bridge between student-athletes and student organization leaders for meaningful participation on campus. She says, “I wanted to make sure that all of us—those in athletics and those in campus organizations—were considered student leaders because we all represent DePaul. We all have a voice.”
Amos’ interest in student government was an outgrowth of her interest in politics. “That was my way of understanding the framework of how organizations are structured and how decisions are made.” She was involved with SGA during her freshman and sophomore years and was asked to run for president in her junior year. Amos, who is African-American, paraphrases what then-SGA president Diane McWilliams (LAS ’89), the first African-American woman to serve in that role, told her: “It’s important that black students, whether they’re engaged or not, see people like you and me engaged and know that their voice can be heard.”
A controversy arose during Amos’ tenure. “We had one of the student organizations invite Eleanor Smeal to speak at its club meeting,” Amos recalls. Smeal, a former president of the National Organization for Women and current president of Feminist Majority Foundation, was outspokenly pro-choice. For religious reasons, DePaul’s then-president, the Rev. John T. Richardson, C.M., would not allow her to speak on campus.
As a compromise, “we ended up putting her in a concert hall,” says Amos. “Police were on hand, media, all the major networks. One side of a [nearby] residential street had tables for pro-choice people, the other side of the street had pro-life tables, and we had to cut the street off.”
Amos and Richardson, who have kept in touch over the years, ended up kidding each other about the incident: “‘Remember when you did that to me?’ I was like, ‘Well, Father Richardson, all you had to do was change your mind.’”
‘I was genuine in my approach’
Diversity and inclusion had picked up steam in society by 2008, which saw the U.S. elect its first African-American president. That same year, Charles Snelling (BUS ’09) became SGA president in a contentious election.
“I did not have the support of the previous SGA president,” says Snelling, an equal employment opportunity professional. “However, I had been involved in SGA for two years, and my opponent had only been in SGA for one year. I do believe that I won my election because my platform was very inclusive to giving a voice to all students. I believe the students who knew me knew that I was genuine in my approach.”
Snelling remembers environmental sustainability, public safety and library hours as important issues for students. With what seems like a recurring concern at DePaul, students commented on a fragmented campus environment. “At the time, the campus climate seemed a bit separated in terms of groups of students who would talk to each other. I would notice that the black students on campus typically stuck to themselves and other racial groups of students would do the same,” Snelling recalls. “There were pockets of groups, intersectional groups across campus, but there wasn’t a lot of cross-collaboration with the student organizations or even the student population based on their demographics at the time.”
Snelling recalls with pride that “I was the first student government president to be appointed to the President’s Diversity Council.” Snelling worked with the council to create the first student diversity forum, which gave students a platform to express their concerns as well as their successes with regard to diversity.
Snelling also put a lot of effort into improving SGA, including expanding internal documentation from president to president to help guide the transition process. “I was very proactive in trying to help guide and mentor the students in student government to think proactively and strategically about how we were going to make SGA a more effective student organization,” Snelling says. “I was my high school class president prior to coming to DePaul, so I knew that student leaders were very integral to the success of their peers and colleagues across campus.”
‘I wanted to be giving that introduction’
Student government wasn’t in the game plan when Matthew von Nida (LAS ’15) first sat down for freshman orientation before the start of the 2011–12 academic year. Then, SGA president Anthony Alfano (LAS ’12) got up to welcome the new class and talk a bit about SGA, its focus and how it planned to serve the student body. “Immediately I told myself I wanted to be giving that introduction speech within four years,” von Nida says.
Although von Nida ran unopposed in the 2014–15 election, he had no intention of coasting through his term. A large collaborative effort by von Nida and the other members of student government led to a 10-point plan for the year; addressing the rising cost of higher education topped the list. The two-year budget stalemate in the Illinois General Assembly that began in 2015 unfunded the Monetary Award Program (MAP) that thousands of students count on to help with their tuition costs. SGA lobbied in Springfield for the state to continue to fund the program.
“I was very proud of our Keep Calm and Do the FAFSA campaign,” von Nida says, of the online and Radio DePaul ad campaign SGA began to ensure students eligible for MAP assistance applied through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by an accelerated February 1 deadline. “We increased the number of students who filed their FAFSA by the deadline by 10 percent.
“But it wasn’t just about the MAP grants and [Federal] Pell Grants,” von Nida says. “It was making sure we were working with DePaul Operations to talk about opportunities to partner with Barnes & Noble and the bookstore on textbook affordability, [as well as] with different college departments and professors on how they presented articles, textbooks and resources that were needed for the classroom that would be the most accessible for students.”
Student well-being on campus was also a major focus that elicited actions from having more vegan options for on-campus dining to working with DePaul’s Division of Student Affairs to create a committee with representatives from numerous student groups focused on sexual violence prevention. Von Nida explained his approach: “As student leaders, what is our responsibility on sexual violence prevention? But also, what is the university’s responsibility in making sure that we’re reporting back and being that voice to the university? How are we talking about consent and how we can bring that conversation into our orientations?”
Von Nida, who currently works as a political fundraiser, hoped to bring his unique perspective as a gay Asian-American to serve other students in the community: “Student advocacy is based on student experience. The experience is different than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago. A place like DePaul University can’t do its best without considering the student perspective in every decision it makes.”Click here to rate this story and offer feedback.