Practicing for public life

The Minnesota Student Association and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly attract ambitious University students. Most see it as practice for future public service.

Former MSA leaders gather Monday evening at the Big 10 sportsbar to celebrate and discuss life and politics.

Former MSA leaders gather Monday evening at the Big 10 sportsbar to celebrate and discuss life and politics.

by Cali Owings

On Monday, alumni of the Minnesota Student Association returned to the place where it all began. ItâÄôs not an office in Coffman Union or a board meeting room, but a corner booth at the Big 10 Restaurant and Bar.
For about two years, the group has met on the third Monday of every month. Matt Musel, a University of Minnesota alumnus and former student body president, sets an âÄúagendaâÄù of topics.
âÄúWhat are your plans for Easter weekend?âÄù asks the first item. And then, further down the list: âÄúMinnesota politics âÄìâÄì who should we crucify?âÄù
When they were young, just out of high school, they dressed up and acted like professional adults in student government. Now that they are professional adults, they want one night a month where they act like college kids.
Among those in attendance on Monday was Karin Alexander, who started in MSA in the late âÄô80s, and then acted as an adviser in the mid-âÄô90s.
To Alexander, students who want to be student body president all have one thing in common âÄî extremely powerful egos. Most of the time, their egos and ambition also leave them sensitive to criticism.
âÄúThey all truly believe they have something to contribute,âÄù she said.
Most whoâÄôve served in student government leadership, whether it was MSA or the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, see it as practice for the work they will do outside of the University.
Josh Colburn, who served as MSA president in 2002, said his experience with student government was like a âÄúmicrocosmâÄù of the real world.
âÄúIn most cases you have four or five years to get it right while you try on different approaches, knowing that whole clock resets after a few years,âÄù he said.
During his first week at the University, Matt Musel got his start in MSA as a representative from Comstock Hall Council. He was interested in leadership because the nuns at his Catholic high school had taught him to serve others.
âÄúPolitics is about imagination in relationships. Once I could imagine myself as a leader of Minnesota, I could see my relationships and my friends make that happen for us,âÄù he said.
Today, Musel said he sees himself as a leader in the state with the work he does fundraising for the University and on the political action committee of OutFront Minnesota.
After graduation, Musel spent a year with AmeriCorps VISTA advocating for affordable housing for low-income families. He then worked for two years in former Gov. Jesse VenturaâÄôs office before returning to his hometown to fundraise for his high school, Bethlehem Academy.
He said the network he built through MSA helped him get his current job, organizing fundraising for the University Extension.
Longtime friends and colleagues say Musel is a dreamer. Chad Reichwald, who assisted with MSA while Musel was president, said Musel wanted to run in the special election for the Falcon Heights state Senate seat last month.
âÄúHe didnâÄôt really look into it with his eyes open about what it would take to win an election. He hasnâÄôt taken the steps necessary to make himself a viable candidate,âÄù Reichwald said.
Alexander, who did administrative work in the MSA office for nearly three years during MuselâÄôs presidency, said he has always been idealistic, though today he seems a bit more grounded in reality.
âÄúI would always kind of look at him and go, âÄòOK, this is college life. But reality will be very different,âÄôâÄù she said.
Even if it is, MuselâÄôs time in student government stayed with him.
He wrote a history of student government as part of his senior project, and the list of past leaders he assembled is still used by the Office of Student Affairs to connect student government alumni.

Ashwin Madia
Trial lawyer, Madia Law LLC

When he came to college, Ashwin Madia wanted to become a doctor. But after starting the pre-medical course load, he changed his mind: Based on what he liked to read and write, law school looked like a better option.
After graduating from the University with a political science degree, Madia went to law school at New York University. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served four years as a judge advocate, or JAG attorney. Madia tried hundreds of cases, most of the time defending Marines facing prison time. Deployed to Iraq in 2005, Madia worked with international organizations and Iraqi citizens to rebuild the countryâÄôs legal system.
In October 2007, Madia announced his campaign for the open seat in the 3rd Congressional District.
Madia won the DFL endorsement, but he lost the general election to Republican Erik Paulsen by 28,000 votes.
Though Reichwald wasnâÄôt close to Madia while they were in MSA, he supported MadiaâÄôs campaign for Congress.
On election night, Reichwald ran into him at the DFL party downtown around 1:30 a.m.
âÄúI gave him a hug,âÄù Reichwald said. âÄúHe said he felt like he disappointed everyone, like he let them down.âÄù
Shortly after losing the election, Madia and Reichwald decided to practice law on their own and even went office-shopping together. Operating next door to Reichwald in an office in the Warehouse District, Madia now devotes his time to civil rights cases.
Madia is also the interim chairman of, a left-leaning military advocacy group.
Reichwald and Madia periodically wander into each otherâÄôs offices to talk politics. One afternoon, Reichwald told Madia that running for office takes a little bit of an ego.
âÄúHe seemed genuinely hurt by that,âÄù Reichwald said âÄúIâÄôm not saying itâÄôs a bad thing âĦ You have to have a really high opinion of yourself if you think you are the best possible representative for the people.âÄù
Madia said he will definitely stay involved in politics because he thinks he has something to contribute to public life.
âÄúI think this country is worth working for, and I hope to do some good,âÄù Madia said.

Paul Strain
Graduating May 2011

When Paul Strain, a biochemistry major from Neenah, Wis., won the all-campus election in 2009, he had no idea his title would be undergraduate student body president. To him, MSA was just a student group he belonged to that needed a leader.
Strain, referring to himself as the âÄúgrandpaâÄù of the organization because he has been around so long, has dedicated his entire undergraduate career to student government.
When he joined MSA as a freshman, he said participation in forum was terrible. The resolutions were largely written by the president, with a committee chairâÄôs name slapped on it and presented to a forum that would get through the agenda with time to spare, even though they met only once a month. Today, even though MSA meets every two weeks, the group sometimes doesnâÄôt get to everything on the agenda.
Still, Strain said itâÄôs hard to tell people what he accomplished during his time as president of the organization.
âÄúI wish I could say I created the UPass because you can explain that easily to people,âÄù he said.
âÄúPaul is the sort of person people are drawn to,âÄù MSA adviser Megan Sweet said. âÄúHis personality is magnetic.âÄù
His effectiveness as a leader relied a lot on his ability to receive feedback from others and create an inclusive environment, she said.
Even though he lost his bid for re-election, Strain stuck around student government as the student representative to the Board of Regents.
âÄúI care about the organization staying afloat,âÄù Strain said. âÄúYou leave an organization after youâÄôve been president and itâÄôs like your kid. IâÄôve given four years of my life.âÄù
Despite his commitment to student government, Strain said heâÄôs not interested in pursuing politics as a career. He plans to go to medical school, but after graduating in May, he will head to the San Francisco Bay area with Teach for America.
âÄúI want to make a meaningful change in the community,âÄù he said. âÄúAnd thereâÄôs better ways [than politics] to do that.âÄù

Suzanne Fust
Program director, Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting

In 1990, Suzanne Fust, frustrated that graduate students were not being heard because undergraduates in MSA moved the agenda, spearheaded a committee to form a separate government for graduate students which would become GAPSA.
âÄúPeople need representation. People need a voice. When they arenâÄôt being heard it bothers me,âÄù Fust said.
Since helping form GAPSA and serving as its first president, Fust has continued working on behalf of the voiceless.
Fust graduated in 1995 with degrees in child psychology and public health and since then has worked as a clinical psychologist and Minneapolis-based advocate. SheâÄôs lobbied on the city, state and national levels for community organizations in relation to public health and safety issues. She was executive director for the Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, which advocates for stricter gun laws.
Fust is currently the adolescent parent program manager for the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting. Fust brings together state agencies and school districts to create improved services and greater rights to teen parents.
âÄúItâÄôs a group thatâÄôs rather invisible and looked down upon. Individuals who have children at a young age need a lot of help and support,âÄù Fust said, âÄúNot just them, their kids as well. Their needs need to be met so they can become productive, thriving citizens.âÄù
As GAPSA approaches its 20th anniversary, Fust said she is glad to see graduate students still participating in student government.
âÄúI take some pride in the fact that itâÄôs still going and people carry it forward,âÄù she said.

Abu Jalal
Assistant professor of finance, Suffolk University

Abu Jalal, GAPSA president for the 2004-05 academic year, navigated the organization through a transition from receiving just $120,000 in student fees for 2001 to nearly $400,000 by 2004.
Jalal, who was earning his doctorate in finance from the Carlson School of Management, had previously served as GAPSAâÄôs vice president for finance.
But he said his most valuable experiences in GAPSA came from interacting with other graduate students. Before Jalal got involved with the organization, he spent most of his time researching. He learned to work with others, present his point of view convincingly and listen to other peopleâÄôs opinions.
âÄúGAPSA in a sense was a learning environment for me,âÄù he said. âÄúI was learning all of those things in a friendly environment âĦ and I essentially took those skills when I got out of GAPSA and got a job.âÄù
As an assistant professor of finance at Suffolk University, the skills Jalal acquired in GAPSA have helped him to better relate to students and work with colleagues.
But more importantly, he said GAPSA was fun. During his time with the organization, he took trips to Washington, D.C., and made friends whom he returns to Minnesota to visit and who donâÄôt hesitate to meet up with him when they make it out to Boston.

Ryan Kennedy
2010-11, resigned
Organizing for 2012 election, still looking for full-time employment

Former GAPSA President Ryan Kennedy has been connected to the University since middle school when he participated in a math program that brought him to campus every day. KennedyâÄôs connection to the University ended abruptly when he left the Humphrey School for Public Affairs in January and resigned from his position as GAPSA president.
As a freshman, Kennedy stumbled into a Minnesota Public Interest Research Group meeting during the first month of school. He quickly became wrapped up in the organization.
At the same time, he got involved with MSA through Territorial Hall Council. During his two years as an undergraduate, he participated in MSA and began the Legislative Certificate Program, which trains students to lobby on student issues at the Capitol. He also served as chairman of the Student Senate. When he began his public policy program in the Humphrey School, he continued to work as the director for the LCP.
Kennedy was elected GAPSA president for the 2010-11 academic year. He was the sole student representative on the Presidential Search Committee that chose Eric Kaler to replace current University President Bob Bruininks, and he continued to be active with MPIRG and other organizing efforts.
But in January, Kennedy left all that he had built at the University to find full-time employment. The 21-year-old student was nearly a semester away from finishing his masterâÄôs degree with no professional work experience and was struggling financially. He didnâÄôt have a job offer on the table, but he knew he was tired of being pulled in different directions.
âÄúTo me, the idea of a 40-hour work week seems a heck of a lot better than what IâÄôve been doing,âÄù Kennedy said.
For now heâÄôs paying the bills with temporary work at a machine shop where he inspects screws, working alongside many of the people he hopes to help with nonprofit work.
He listens to his co-workersâÄô problems, like one who canâÄôt afford eyeglasses for his 7-year-old daughter and said he is sick of people âÄúgetting screwed by insurance companies.âÄù
HeâÄôs put out job applications and is waiting to hear back from organizations like the Minnesota Universal Health Care Coalition.
âÄúI was doing a lot of things I was extremely passionate for,âÄù Kennedy said. âÄúWhat I really wanted to do was be able to channel that into one thing.âÄù
Right now that one thing could be finishing his masterâÄôs degree and starting law school at the same time or doing something he loves like community advocacy work or preparing to organize a friendâÄôs campaign for the 2012 state congressional election.
âÄúIâÄôm trying to find it,âÄù he said without uneasiness or hesitation. âÄúIâÄôm still working on it.âÄù