Meet the President
A tale of books, Swahili and Photo Booth
Sydney Robinson looks a little frazzled but still put together. She apologizes for being late—her new duties as Student Union president have kept her busy, after all. If she’s stressed, she doesn’t show it. She’s dressed up in a nice suit, but she’s far from stiff—her slight Southern twang able to make anyone comfortable in an instant.
She steps inside her office, which she’s only just started to personalize (“Everybody asked that at first, ‘Have you customized the office?’ And it’s like, when? I could go sleep, or I could decorate. I’m going to sleep.”). Two monitors sit on the desk, flanked by files, cabinets and remnants of work she was just completing. A tower of boxes left by outgoing Vice President of Administration and senior Cary Cheng blocks one cabinet. A bust of President Abraham Lincoln—a gift from former SU president, senior and campus celebrity Kenneth Sng—sits on a circular table next to her desk. The biggest change to the office seems to be the addition of Sng’s own picture on Robinson’s bulletin board, joining the faces of former presidents Emma Tyler and Jordan Finkelstein. On her desk lay Robinson’s “I <3 SU” and “51st” SU mugs.
She’d go on to talk about how she joined Student Union back as a freshman, the advice she’d received from Sng and her fondest SU memories. She loves her classes, she plays softball, and she’s switching into the business school. When she talks about SU, she’s regal, serious. When she talks about schoolwork, she’s optimistic, idealistic. The first sophomore to assume the presidency since 2003, she recognizes the responsibility of the position she’s taking on. When it comes to her plans, she doesn’t joke as much, but she wants to have fun doing it. She’s excited and talks with passion and drive, but measured, choosing every word carefully, but not calculatedly.
It’s the beginning of first semester and the day of the Fall Activities Fair. Members of SU, including then-president Sng, had helped set up, run and take down the event being coordinated by the activities committee chair of Treasury. Given the hard day’s work, Sng decided to give himself the rest of the day off and go home early, instead of spending multiple hours in the SU office as he usually did.
“Imagine this picture: the sun setting in the background, Mudd Field filled with litter and one person just standing right there, walking along and picking up litter,” Sng remembers as he left. “That was Sydney.”
That’s the story Sng chooses to tell told to the crowd of administrators, students and members of SU at the 51st exec’s inauguration in late March. It’s of Robinson, then a Treasury representative in her first semester as activities committee chair, continuing to circle the perimeter of Mudd Field alone, picking up leftover trash even after everyone had left for the day.
“That left a really deep impression on me,” Sng said. “Not only because that imagery was really powerful, but also that it’s these little things that show people the extent of your dedication…it’s more than dedication, it’s the values that she espouses, which makes me really glad that she’s the SU president.”
Remembering the anecdote, Robinson starts to laugh and blush to the tune of a repeated “oh my goodness,” clearly touched, but slightly sheepish. The first time she’d heard this story was actually alongside everyone else at inauguration.
“I think it’s so funny how he tells it,” she says. “It’s so Kenneth, but it was so sweet. I remember [doing] that.”
Robinson’s ascent to the SU presidency, however, started before she ever sat in a Washington University classroom through her participation in the Student Union pre-orientation program. There she met members of the 49th exec, along with different Senate and Treasury representatives.
Following the pre-orientation program, she set her sights on joining Senate. As chance had it, no Arts & Sciences seats were open. Instead, she applied for a Treasury seat. Robinson was appointed to a seat of the then-male-dominated Treasury during the fall of her freshman year, becoming the only freshman representative.
“It took me a little while to get into it,” she says of one of her first memories of Student Union. Now, she says, more people are appointed at a time. But, when she was appointed, it was with only one other person, a sophomore. Everyone else around her was a Treasury veteran.
“We had a lot of those incredible people with strong voices—like Lemoine [Joseph] and Luke Summerlin and [James] Harvey, so coming into that as a freshman it was definitely like, ‘Oh man, this is serious’,” she says. “It was nice to be able to have those people to look up to when you’re joining, but it was definitely intimidating at first, but it was so fun.”
Sng, then serving as the 49th exec’s vice president of finance, remembers it differently. Oftentimes, he said, there’s a steep learning curve for Treasury representatives to overcome before they become comfortable speaking out. Sng would know—he spent time as a Treasury representative and Speaker of the Treasury—and said representatives are forced to learn the groove of the legislative body quickly.
“It usually takes about a semester before Treasury representatives feel comfortable to speak out with regards to issues,” he said. “But Sydney overcame the steep learning curve really quickly. She was thrown into leadership positions pretty early on…and she’s done an amazing job with the two activities fairs.”
She was soon elected to activities committee chair for her sophomore fall, and reelected for the spring in a slate of Treasury leadership that would be all-female. As chair, she institutionalized and formalized the process that student groups go through to be recognized or granted a category change. She wrote manuals on certain procedures and ran multiple activities fairs. She continued serving the position until she took over as the 50th exec’s chief of staff this past February. From there, she made the jump to president—a position she’s prepared for, despite being a sophomore.
“Her biggest strength is that she’s able to get things done. She’s able to get people to do things with little difficult,” Sng said. “Sydney has always had a way to make things happen without hurting feelings or without hurting relationships…It’s partly because she’s so dedicated. She’s humble; she’s always so cheerful. It makes it a joy to work around her.”
But the question Robinson struggles to answer most has nothing to do with Student Union. Instead, it’s about what book she would take to a desert island.
“I love reading,” she says. “It’s so weird because reading for school is just so different than when I read other stuff; so, if I ever get time to read, I love it. It’s kind of the way I step back from things.”
Robinson recounts how her rooms at home and school are filled with books—she’s always playing a game of where to put the next bookshelf.
“Whenever someone asks me that, I just, I can’t—I can’t do it,” she says, still struggling with the question.
“All of my roommates make fun of me for how many books I have in my room.” They’ve even been known to play tricks on her by stacking her books on a window above her bed and out of reach.
Robinson splits her books into different categories. In one category, there’s books about people—how they work together, relationships, teamwork, leadership. That’s where books by her favorite authors, like Pat Lencioni and Henry Cloud, fit in. In another category are what she calls “stories” (the book she would eventually choose to take to the desert island, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” fits there). The third category is what she calls her “nerdy” books.
“I love reading books about Presidents,” she says. “I love it—I don’t know why. I’ve always loved it.”
She reads about Thomas Jefferson and Lincoln most (ironic that Sng left that bust) and recently has been reading a lot about Barack Obama (“his is interesting because it’s so different from anybody else’s”). But, even more than reading about Presidents, she likes reading about perspectives of people who worked with Presidents. She’s read books from the perspective of first ladies, waiters and members of the Secret Service.
“I would never say no to reading about a President,” she says.
At Washington University, Robinson is studying political science and Leadership and Strategic Management, with a minor in Swahili. Her interests in the first two are easy to pick up, if only through her love of reading. But Swahili is no fluke either.
Ever since early high school, Robinson has been volunteering in Kenya for a group called CARE for AIDS. The group sets up centers in Africa (it started in Kenya and is currently expanding into Tanzania) to help and educate people impacted by AIDS.
“I picked up a good amount while I was over there,” she says. “When I came to Wash. U., I wanted to actually study it and learn it from how it’s supposed to be learned.”
Robinson’s humility and passion—what Sng admired when talking about her and a sentiment echoed by many others she works with—come through as she talks about her work in Africa. She plans to return in January for her next trip (she goes about twice a year) and aches when she’s away. Just like when she talked about books, she’s more relaxed when talking about her passion for her volunteer work than when talking about her newfound presidential responsibilities.
“We could be here for nine hours,” she laughs, as she elaborates on her work with the organization. “It’s probably one of my favorite things that I do. We get to work with a lot of people that society literally has turned their back on, and we kind of get to come in and show them that they’re loved and valuable, and I can’t think of much that’s better than that.”
Robinson steps out of her office at the end of the interview to find Vice President of Finance Iliana Ragnone shooting her a confused look. Ragnone, a former speaker of the Treasury who’s sat on Treasury through all of Robinson’s time there, might be the perfect person to write her very own memoir of Robinson’s tenure as SU president one day. The two have been seemingly inseparable since Robinson joined SU—continually serving together as leadership on Treasury and now on exec. A Ragnone quote tacked to Robinson’s bulletin board adds another custom stylization to the office (“The ship would sink without me!” for curious minds).
Ragnone calls Robinson over to take today’s photo—a daily “Photo Booth” picture featuring members of SU, taken each day at the VP Finance’s computer. Past photos feature former VP Finance and senior Vikram Biswas prominently, but more recently, none seem to be without Robinson and Ragnone.
In her first few weeks as president, Robinson has already had to confront a number of challenges, responsibilities and duties: the recent news of SU’s office move, the multiple University committees she sits on, the more than 7,000 students she represents and leads.
“[Keep] your eye on the objective” is Sng’s advice to Robinson through all that.
“Keeping the ship afloat takes so much effort that it makes it difficult to push the ship forward. My advice to Sydney would be to take care of your daily responsibilities, take care of fires that come up, but never lose sight of what’s important to the student body.”
Ragnone’s quote in Robinson’s office makes it clear, even if jokingly, that the ship is staying afloat—and Robinson has Ragnone, and the rest of exec, to help her keep moving forward. If a one-hour interview with the new SU president is any indication, she’s moving in the right direction.
“I would feel like I succeeded as president if I can look back and people have a view of SU that’s one of we have a body that’s here to help them and serve them,” she says. “The people in this body really do everything they can and want to do everything they can to give students the best access to our resources and support.”