His path to victory was long and bumpy, but Duke Student Government president-elect Tommy Hessel has moved on, with his sights set on summer and next fall.
“Overall I was really humbled by the amount of support that I had during the process and I’m excited to tackle next year,” Hessel, a junior, said.
He congratulated Silombria on an excellent campaign and looks forward to working with her as next year’s president pro tempore of the DSG Senate.
Guiding Hessel’s priorities is a desire to break down any barriers among various student groups. Last year, he looked through DSG’s past projects and realized that every year people were tackling the same projects, but from a slightly different angle. He figured that if this repetition and lack of communication was happening within DSG, then it was likely a problem within other student groups as well.
Hessel reached out to organizations, looked at their newsletters and read their platforms online. There were striking similarities in their causes, but virtually no collaboration.
“That was really when I saw how pervasive the problem of siloed information was at Duke,” Hessel said. “It’s so sad to see three different groups working on, for example, getting student space on campus.”
The only solution, he said, is to make sure student leaders are effectively and regularly communicating about what’s happening on campus and finding ways to work together. But he also recognizes that DSG may seem isolated from the rest of the student body.
That’s why his top priority is to convene a bi-monthly “president’s roundtable” of student leaders, Duke administrators and campus groups. Should Fall 2020 be remote, the roundtables would go online. Hessel said that the group’s goals are to connect student leaders with one another, keep DSG accountable to real needs in the Duke community and give students a direct line of communication to administration.
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This same collaborative spirit also permeated Hessel's campaign staff.
Junior Ryan Williams was at a party when Hessel called and asked him to be head of strategy and platform for his campaign. His phone had the aux cord, so when it rang, the entire room went quiet. Williams looked down, saw who was calling and thought to himself, “I know what this is about.”
When he walked into the first meeting of the campaign’s core team, Williams barely knew half of the people in the room. But that wasn’t a bad thing.
“I really appreciated that Tommy reached out to so many different types of people from so many different areas of campus,” he said.
While he worked on the campaign of former president Kristina Smith, Trinity ‘19, Williams wasn’t involved with the DSG Senate like some of the other staffers. He had met Tommy at the airport when they arrived for their pre-orientation program, Project Build, and the two shared a car to campus.
His first impression of Hessel was that he was “definitely from Texas,” Williams said. As a Texan himself, he was grateful that someone else understood the quirks of his home state. By the end of the week, Williams had Hessel in his phone contacts as “The Most Wholesome Guy.”
Williams said that the president-elect doesn’t overemphasize his presence in a room, but instead leaves space for others to fill. He’s extremely well-connected on campus, Williams said, but doesn’t use those connections in a selfish way.
“Once you watch what he does,” Williams said, “you realize he's somebody who actually has his finger on the pulse of multiple campus groups, even though others might judge him as a stereotypical, one-dimensional type of person before getting to know him.”
Williams explained that Hessel is self-aware of his privileges.
“He very much recognizes that he is a white straight man from a relatively well-to-do background in Texas,” Williams said.
Williams found that this self-awareness only strengthened Hessel’s instinct to partner with various student leaders and underrepresented student groups. By working in tandem with them, the soon-to-be-president hopes to address community needs that have historically gone unnoticed.
Junior Devin Mahoney, one of Hessel’s campaign managers, said his intentionality makes him one of the most effective leaders on campus, as well as a genuine and deliberate friend.
“Tommy is just one of those people that you know on campus because he has a legacy of work and kindness and overall dedication that follows him,” Mahoney said.
She added that his goofiness and sense of humor make him relatable, explaining how he would practice reading his stump speech in a robot voice after a long night of campaign work.
In addition to the president’s round table, Hessel has two other main priorities for the upcoming year: starting a program to train peer advocates for sexual assault prevention and expanding his crowdfunding platform that was approved this year.
Hessel explained that the peer advocates would provide support for students who want to report sexual violence to the University, since the lengthy filing process can be traumatic. Hessel had planned to train advocates in the fall and roll out the program next spring, per the memo on his campaign’s website.
Gerald Harris, director of student involvement for University Center Activities and Events, has been an advisor to DSG for nearly four years. He first worked with Hessel as a first-year senator on the campus life committee, and most recently on his crowdfunding project.
“He had an idea, based on the need of the student body,” Harris wrote in an email. “Through the process, I've seen his growth in navigating and communicating with administration to create a solution.”
Throughout the three years that they’ve worked together, Harris wrote that Hessel has grown a lot in his knowledge of Duke.
“He really hit the ground running, making connections throughout the Duke community,” Harris wrote.
A new, unexpected priority for Hessel is brainstorming ways to build community and stay connected even though students and faculty are scattered across the world. Along with many other groups such as Duke University Union and the Student Affairs office, Hessel has been working to provide virtual programming for students.
“No matter what we're doing, the end goal is always to try to impact the community positively, especially the undergraduate community,” Hessel said. “And even with this transition to a more online scene, we will still continue to do that.”
Editor’s note: Ryan Williams is a member of the Community Editorial Board.