The Outstanding Senate At Saint Ignatius, student government is a service organization

There they are—grilling hot dogs and hawking bags of chips on the first day that Freshmen gather on campus.

There they are—playing Santa and his elves as they deliver toys to children at neighborhood schools around Christmastime.

There they are—getting 1,500 of their peers fired up at an all-school sports rally, or in the student section at Byers Field.

There they are—meeting with administrators and the Board of Regents to discuss issues affecting the study body and share ideas for shaping the school.

There they are—everywhere, doing just about anything—with camaraderie, skill and a joyful spirit.

They are the young men of the Student Senate, and they are here as the backbone of the student experience at Saint Ignatius.

An ordinary Tuesday morning

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in late September, and there’s a playful chatter coming from Room 204 of the Clavius Science Center, where the full Senate is assembled. They fill every seat in the room, from the rows of traditional desks near the windows to the wooden stools that surround each of the lab tables. A few guys snack on packaged breakfast foods as a couple student-athletes rush in after their morning lift.

Up front, Student Senate President John Cugel ’20 quietly reviews the day’s agenda and asks a few questions of longtime Senate advisor, Mr. Bill Kelley ’62. About a minute after 7:30, he calls the group to order and asks for any intentions. Hands fly up around the room as John calls on students of all four years by name. Then, he leads the group in the Prayer for Generosity.

After they finish the prayer and make the Sign of the Cross, it’s all down to business.

Jack Auletta ’20, who serves as Secretary, gives a quick recap of the previous week’s meeting. Treasurer August Slawienski ’20 shares the profits earned from Homecoming, which was hosted by Senate a week prior. (The 2019 theme: AstroCats.)

John shifts into New Business: Senate members will be hand writing thank-you cards to faculty and staff for their help as Homecoming chaperones. A new Senate Instagram account is still being developed. The upcoming Halloween party for Arrupe families is approaching—time to start bringing in bags of candy. Open House is around the corner, and volunteers are needed to give tours.

Next, committees give their reports. A new committee dedicated to The Welsh Academy shares about its plans for upcoming interactions between the Ignatius “big brothers” and the sixth-grade students. There are some quick reminders about ongoing projects and meeting times to work on those. Mr. Kelley jumps in with a point of clarification. Then the gavel sounds and the shuffle off to first period begins. In a week, these guys will meet again, crossing off a half dozen or so other things on their massive to-do list.

From then until now

There is an understanding among faculty and staff that if something important needs to be done, the Student Senate is the group to call on. Kelley, a veteran Spanish teacher, and Science teacher Joe Popelka ’84 have served as advisers to the group for the past 20 years, developing Senate into the force for good that it is today. This “modern-era” of Senate began in 2000.

“We spent that year talking a lot and then developing a constitution,” says Kelley, who will receive this year’s Magis Award in part due to his dedication to students. “The administration over the years has given us free reign to structure it as we like.”

“We’ve always done Halloween. We’ve always done the toy drive. We’ve always done Easter. Those are sort of standard things, and then we’ve added other things as we’ve gone along,” Kelley says. “We’ve made more demands on the students. The President, really, is a big job. He has to answer to a lot of people. It’s a responsibility—it really is.”

That first year, Tom Gill ’01 served as President and Nick Green ’01 was Vice President. By coincidence, both men are now presidents of middle schools that serve children primarily from low-income families.

“We’ve been very lucky, we’ve had some really good presidents over the years,” Kelley says. “Many of them sort of grow into it, and in order to run they have to have at least one year prior experience, and mostly they have more than that.”

One of those young men who grew into the role is Matt Razek ’09; it was a leadership position he never saw for himself when he was a freshman.

“My first two years at Ignatius I’d just take classes,” he says. “I’d go to school, and then I’d come home and I was very uninvolved.” That is, until he formed a relationship with his biology teacher, Mr. Popelka.

Science teacher and Senate co-moderator Joe Popelka '84

Spanish teacher and Senate co-moderator Bill Kelley '62

“I would consider him one of the first teachers that I got close with, whether it was a certain connection that I had with him, and we started talking a little bit more about Student Senate. I had him for homeroom and first period, and Senate meetings would always be in his classroom, and I would be coming and waiting outside. Through the conversations I ended up joining junior year. I had applied and became an appointed rep.”

Immediately, Razek found himself inspired and energized by the work he started doing.

“You see that all students have an opportunity to connect and engage with the Student Senate, and you realize that there’s so much more,” he says. “I was going through Ignatius just focusing on myself, focusing on my education, and I didn’t realize how much I can use an Ignatius education.”

“I was this shy kid from the east side who didn’t do much at all and kind of kept to myself, and so it also empowered me to open up and to develop actual leadership skills. Instead of just internalizing, ‘This is the type of person and leader I want to be,’ I actually got to practice that and became much more comfortable with public speaking and getting involved and participating.”

It didn’t take long for this shy guy to start to dream big about what more he could do to serve the organization he was growing to love and the school that he had come to cherish.

“Getting involved helped show my true potential, and I think made me feel comfortable with putting myself out there,” Razek says. “Student Senate was what finally helped me realize that Ignatius was home.”

So he made the choice to run for Student Senate President—and he won.

“One of the best experiences was being able to be the student rep on the Board of Regents. At the regent dinner at the end of the year the board chair talks and at that time it was Fred DiSanto ’80,” says Razek. “He said that what makes Ignatius unique is opportunity—it’s a school that provides opportunities to students who may not expect them. I think that’s what Student Senate provided for me.”

John Cugel (right) and his cabinet members raise the Saint Ignatius flag on the rooftop of the Skylight Financial building on the first day of school.

High-profile leadership roles

Ten years later, the same sentiment rings true. This year’s president, John Cugel, spent one year as an appointed rep before taking a chance and running for the highest-profile student leadership position on campus.

Cugel, a University Heights resident and Gesu graduate, has been heavily involved in theater, music and his Slovenian culture through St. Vitus parish. As a rising junior, he wanted to join his friends on Student Senate. He lost the election for class rep, but still found himself appointed to a spot on behalf of his class.

“Once you’re in the Senate, you’re in, but you can get involved so much more,” he says. “You can sign up for all these extra events to help out throughout the year. It is what you make of it.”

Cugel’s decision to pursue the presidency was inspired, in part, by his predecessor, Dillion Gallagher ’19.

“Dillion was the president before, and I was friends with him, and we were talking one day and he asked, ‘Are you going to run for anything next year?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘Why not? Just run.’”

So Cugel threw his hat into the ring, joining forces with Caleb Blake ’20. The two had become friends in Dr. Terra Caputo’s AP English Literature class and decided to run on the same ticket. They ran unopposed, paving an easy path to their new leadership positions.

“I always liked being able to be in a position to help people,” says Blake, who had two years of Senate experience under his belt. “I feel like, a lot of time, student government and Student Senate is a good way to do that. Mr. Popelka always makes sure to say that we’re a service organization, which is true because that’s our main goal is to do service for the school and the community.”

For these two, the responsibilities are tremendous. In addition to running weekly meetings with the Student Senate executive board, they also meet every week with the full Senate of about 50 students. Throughout the school year, they oversee the planning and implementation of signature events like Homecoming, the winter formal, Freshman Orientation, Arrupe Halloween and Easter parties, as well as Open House, open-mic coffee house events, and campus-wide initiatives. Kelley estimates that the president and vice president participate in as many as 200 events.

A meeting of the Student Senate Executive Board

One of the major improvements to Senate throughout the past 20 years has been the structure, from the executive board on down. Kelley says that, when he and Popelka started, the secretary and treasurer did not really participate in many meetings. Now, each young man in those roles has definite, important responsibilities, which allows the president to focus on the bigger picture.

This year, Jack Auletta ’20 serves as secretary. In just a couple months, he has developed a reputation for being prompt and thorough, whether it comes down to tracking attendance or preparing the week’s agendas. August Slawienski ’20 was appointed as treasurer, and his detailed record-keeping tracks the collection and expenditure of thousands of dollars.

“We really depend on that organization,” Kelley says. “I really depend on it, because there are things that I don’t have to do, because they stay on top of it.”

Opportunities for leadership extend throughout the Senate, even for those who are not elected to positions. There are guys who head up the various committees, or serve as the primary grill-masters whenever there is a cookout, or who wear the Wildcat mascot at events, or who teaching the incoming students how to do the most popular cheers at sporting events.

As each of these leadership opportunities arises, there they are—students ready to seize them.

Students dressed up at the annual Halloween party, which Student Senate hosts for children in the neighborhood

At cookouts to start and end the school year, the Student Senate is ever-present, manning the grills

Student Senate members make sure that the Wildcat is present and energized at rallies, sporting events, Open House, Freshman Family Welcome and many other events throughout the year

Freedom and fellowship

Perhaps Student Senate’s greatest gift to students, beyond its facilitation of so many school events and programs, and its voice to administrators, is that it helps reveal talents and hone skills that students never knew they had in the first place.

For each of the past several years, the presidents and vice presidents have shared that they learned how important collaboration is, why it helps to include many voices and let people be heard, and how to remain organized.

“It helps to have good people around you,” Cugel says. “The cabinet I selected has been really on top of things. Having a good group around you speeds things up and you can work well together and that’s a humungous key to leadership—because it’s not just one person leading, it’s a whole entire team of people leading.”

“I have no problem stepping in with whomever and saying, ‘Hey, let’s do this,’” says Blake. “Being able to lead in a way that’s not threatening is important, too, because I really don’t want to come off that way at all. I just like to connect with everybody and I’m a lot more calm when I talk about things, so just being effective as a leader, I’d say that’s the best thing that has happened to me so far this year.”

Senate has also allowed students to make their mark on their famed Alma Mater. During the 2018-2019 school year, the senior leadership of the Senate posed the question for the Class of 2019: What do you want our class’s legacy to be?

Last school year also saw a strong push for students to educate themselves on the issue of gun violence and to pray for victims. This year, Cugel and his team are working to assist administrators in creating programming and avenues of support around mental health issues.

This freedom is, in part, what Razek valued most about the advising his team received from Kelley and Popelka.

“Bill and Joe gave us the opportunity to run the organization,” Razek says. “While they were advisors, they let the students coordinate what happened and they ran with student ideas and they helped develop the students, whether it was organizationally, planning, developing those sorts of skills, helping make decisions.”

Most importantly, the students discover new passions and find great joy in the work they get to do. The annual Patel Family Christmas Toy Drive is one celebrated example.

“That’s probably one of my favorite memories because you get to see the good that being at Ignatius can do for others and for yourself,” says Razek, who now works in student life at Boston College. “To bring that into the community is something special. I still distinctly remember that day, 11 years later, and the feelings that came with it and all the work that went into that.”

A child from a local school hugs Santa, who delivers nearly 1,000 toys to schools on Christmas in Our Community Day every year. Student Senate's elves assist with the effort.

The drive, which collects hundreds of toys from Saint Ignatius students and distributes them to children at local schools, is Kelley’s favorite Student Senate event. What’s so special about it?

“It’s that time of the year,” Kelley says. “We’re doing something very other-directed. It’s a lot of fun, actually. Of course going to the schools, that’s a really good experience for the kids.”

When Student Senate alumni return to campus, it’s not unusual for them to stop by their advisors’ classrooms to check in. When they get together on their own, they talk about the positive experiences they shared together. During Razek’s senior year, he actually organized a reunion for past Student Senate Presidents, an event that continues to this day and now also includes former cabinet members.

“What started out as an idea to connect the past to the current turned into this opportunity and this now-tradition to bring individuals back and to see where they’re at and even to share ideas,” Razek says.

In some ways, the Senate builds on the work done by the class—or classes—that came before them.

“They see the people ahead of them, how they functioned, and they have a model to follow,” Kelley says. “Each has a different personality, and some have different priorities or different experiences that they bring to it.”

Really, what emerges from all of this time and work and conversation is fellowship—shared among the Student Senate and spread throughout the entire Saint Ignatius community. It’s a genuine embodiment of the “Men for Others” motto that unites a team of students who otherwise may never have been assembled together.

The 2019-2020 Saint Ignatius Student Senate

Business as usual

By the time this story goes live online, the members of the Student Senate will again have their hands full with other important projects that serve a variety of people.

There they’ll be—sorting and wrapping nearly a thousand toys in Christmas wrapping paper.

There they’ll be—coaching up the Class of 2020 to (perhaps) another victory in the Senior-Faculty basketball game.

There they’ll be—hosting a Mass and Christmas breakfast for Saint Ignatius faculty, staff and their families.

There they’ll be—building up the community of Saint Ignatius High School in ways both big and small, in the spotlight and in the trenches.

There they are and there they’ll be—a student organization unlike any other.

by Connor Walters '09

Story appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Saint Ignatius Magazine

Created By
Connor Walters