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Jack Herstam: Student Government & Growing from Everything

Jack Herstam served as the student body president during the 2017-2018 school year. Jack majored in political science and ethnic studies and previously led the orientation program. After graduating, he plans to take a gap year while serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps at his High School in Arizona, then enter law school to become a prosecutor or district attorney.

photo courtesy of Jack Herstam

Selected Interview Highlights: 

Gavin Cosgrave: How did you start to get interested in political science or leadership?

Jack Herstam: Poly-sci is kind of in my blood—my dad was an elected official in the Arizona as a representative in the state house of representatives. When I was in high school at Brophy, the Jesuit high school in Phoenix and I got involved in student government there. It’s been a unique challenge over the past four years and has probably been the largest space for my individual growth.


GC: Did anything surprise you in your first couple months at Santa Clara?

JH: I came into Santa Clara expecting it to be just like high school. I remember the day my mom left, I got back into my room in Swig and realized I was all by myself. You’re so much more personally responsible than you ever were before, and that was intimidating. There were little things that drew parallels back to high school like my work with the Jesuit community, I’ve been a desk receptionist there for the last four years. Some of the classes I’ve had and their themes of justice and a global perspective. Those were some of the little things that helped the transition.


GC: What have you learned from working in the Jesuits?


JH: The value of working hard. There was a Jesuit named Father Jerry McKevitt who passed away in the Fall of 2016. Every time he passed by the desk, he would say, “always find the consolation over the desolation.” He said it a few times, and finally I asked what he meant. He said, “consolation comes from getting the work done and knowing you put everything into it, and there’s no reason to find desolation there because you know you gave everything you had.


Something else Brother Brack, and he’s 88 so he’s the second-oldest in the community. He said there’s nothing that’s happened to him that have been “bad.” I pushed him and asked what he meant. He said that plenty of things have been bad and uncomfortable, but if you trust in who you are and that things “happen for a reason” if you will, there isn’t any situation that can happen to you that you can’t take something from and recover from. There’s growth in everything.


GC: How did you get involved in student government at Santa Clara?


JH: The item I was going after in my first year as a freshman senator was working to create some sort of education on sexual assault. I remember going through orientation and there was never anything presented to my class. I worked with the Office of Student Life to pinpoint ideas and sources. I was able to meet a lot of administrators and find my place and voice as a leader.


Something else that was really pivotal to my experience at the university was being an orientation leader (OL). I was an OL for Casa Italiana, and I lived in Swig, but it was different than what I expected. The interactions and engagements that I had were so enriching and fulfilling that I went back and led the team my second year. That involved everything from selecting the team to training and leading the orientations. You can have such a big impact on incoming students and their families. There’s so much anticipation about coming to Santa Clara and leaving home. Being able to serve as a bridge between those two different worlds of high school and college is such a privilege because it generates lots of relationships that are based on trust in such a short time frame. Some of the best relationships I had were from that experience.


GC: What do you do to make new students feel at home?


JH: A good orientation leader recognizes those students who have a little more anxiety and find themselves on the margins of groups. What I think is important is having one-on-one conversations with those individuals. Often times what it takes is the orientation leader coming up and asking how the experience is going.


When I was at orientation, I remember being outside Locatelli center, looking for the next person to talk to. I wasn’t really feeling the dance or sports, I was just kind of dwelling in the realness of the impending university experience. An orientation leader came up and we had an hour-long conversation. She ended up being one of my best friends at Santa Clara and we’re still in contact. That’s how an orientation leader can impact the trajectory of an individual student, and I recognize that because I was that student at one point.


GC: How was the process of transitioning into student body president?

JH: That was a process that was scary, and I had a lot of mentors who encouraged me to do it. The overall message is “to whom much is given, much is expected.” What was given to me was a quick start getting to know a lot of key players at Santa Clara as a first year and on orientation. I recognized that to be as efficient as possible, you have to know who to go to. It’s important for an individual who is going to be president to have lots of relationships in the first place.


It was something I really cared about. I had seen ASG change with the ebbs and flows over three years. We started out with nothing controversial but in November of 2016, the overall rhetoric started to change a little. There was more of a push-pull factor from the right and left. I identify myself as someone who can handle those pushes and pulls eloquently and with compassion. I won’t speculate whether I’ve done a good job, but it’s been interesting, challenging and formative for my growth.


GC: What’s something you’ve been able to achieve this past year in your role?


JH: Before the year started, all 28 of the Jesuit student-body presidents signed onto a statement saying we would do what was within our power to support undocumented students. We had met at a conference and that was right after Jeff Sessions had announced stricter and harsher punishments for individuals who were undocumented. I’ve worked a lot with the Undocumented Students and Allies Association. ASG had USAA give a presentation to the senate, and we helped them with funding for their gala fundraiser event, and that’s money from my discretionary fund. We’ve cultivated a really good relationship with that group, and with the Multicultural Center this year.


GC: What are your plans after graduation?

JH: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I want to go to law school, and I want to be a district attorney or prosecutor. The path to get there is doing the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, so I’ll be back at Brophy where I went to high school teaching a class, leading retreats and working with 6th through 8th graders. I’ll also be studying for the LSAT and applying to law schools, and hopefully end up back in California somewhere. 


GC: If you could send a message to every person in the United States, what would you want to say?


JH: Perceive others charitably. I think that a lot of an individual’s intentions are lost in the perception. Especially in this year of 2018, if individuals took a second to critically analyze what people say and ask, “This is what I heard you saying, is that what you meant?” That step would solve a lot of unnecessary conflict and preserve the enamel of relationships and trust. I strongly believe that everyone is either a friend or potential friend.

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