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Jessica McConnell

Student leaders reflect on their relationship with Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

By Jeannette Belliveau and Jane Byrne

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s relationship with GW students began even before his first day on the job. Past presidents and the current president of the Student Association recall stories of how GW’s departing president, who invites them back annually for a reunion dinner, touched their lives.

President Trachtenberg works closely with the Student Association presidents each year. Here he poses with former Student Association presidents at their annual reunion.

Raffi Terzian, BA ’89, MD ’93

In the summer of 1988, Raffi Terzian, now a medical director for occupational health for the Main Line Health system in his native Philadelphia, received an unusual invitation—to fly up to Hartford, Conn., to meet the new incoming president, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who wanted to establish a relationship with GW students even before formally beginning the job.

Here I was this young, wide-eyed 20 year-old, and the incoming president of the University was inviting me to meet with him. He flew me up there, and I stayed with him in the chancellor’s home. He was by default making an overture to the student body by extending that invitation.

I remember seeing him for the first time. He has a presence. You look at him, and he’s got a smile on his face, a really warm smile. He makes you feel like he’s really listening intently.

This set a positive tone for our relationship going forward. When we returned to campus (he sat next to me on the plane back home to D.C.), it seemed we had already begun to develop a good working relationship.

I think he has a special place in his heart for us, the student leaders. I always tried not to miss a single one of those gatherings because of him. It’s so important for me to be there, it’s my way to pay tribute and to honor him for his opening up his time and schedule for us.

At the end of that year, he had an installation. I made a presentation on behalf of the students. In the middle of that important ceremony, we embraced on the stage. It showed his warmth as a person.

Later on, after he’d been here a couple of years, he and Bob Chernak (senior vice president for student and academic support services) stayed overnight with students in the dorms. We lived through the excitement of the basketball seasons. When George Washington was playing well, I remember how enthusiastic and upbeat he was.

GW is fortunate that he will be staying on in a teaching role. I think that the students stand to benefit enormously from that, and that he still will have a presence on campus. He will let the new president come in and do his thing.

The University is really blessed to have someone of his caliber. To take a very good campus, and then make it into a world-class educational institution, well, he led that effort. To look around the campus and to know that GW is so highly rated among high school students … I don’t know if I could get into it now! He raised the academic standards. He’s leaving the institution in great shape, and for that I think the University community owes him a debt of gratitude.

He took GW and integrated it into the city of Washington, and that’s very special. He gave opportunities to students who might not otherwise have had opportunities. GW went from being in D.C. to being a part of D.C.

One other recollection—when we met that first time in Hartford, he said a university president only lasts five to 10 years. Nineteen years later, he’s finally retiring. I have to poke a little bit of fun at that.

John David Morris, BA ’90; MPA ’93

Morris succeeded Terzian as Student Association president. He has returned to his hometown, Peoria, Ill., where he is an elected member of the Peoria council and vice president for development for WTVP, the local PBS station. Morris recalls Trachtenberg’s letters and influence on Washington, D.C.

The first time I met Trachtenberg was on his first trip to campus. He was paraded around with select groups of faculty and staff and students, and I was at a little reception; there must have been about 30 of us there. I gave him my business card that I had printed up with my own money. Well, I ended up on the Stephen Joel Trachtenberg advanced PR mailing list. I must have had 20 pieces of mail from him before he came on campus. Some were mailings; some were personalized letters, where he wrote “Excelsior” at the bottom, from Latin, meaning “ever higher.”

President Trachtenberg, Incoming Student Association President Nicole Capp, and current SA President Lamar Anthony Thorpe

Jessica Mcconnell

As president of the student body, I had incredible access to him, to take him our agenda. We wanted streamlined registration, and my job was to represent the students. What I didn’t realize was that he became my most valuable professor. He taught me as we went along.

I remember a student writing him an angry, emotional complaint letter, and I was copied on it. He wrote her a four-page response, which included all sorts of literary references. It really, I’m sure, did not quell her anger about the issue at the time, yet when you read the letter it was full of lessons. I can only hope she kept her original letter; each one of those letters is like the signature of a hall of fame baseball player.

When Trachtenberg came in, he was seen as a businessman and as a lawyer, but he is fundamentally an educator. He does the things that great university presidents need to do. He raises money to recruit faculty and build buildings, but more important to the story, he does things no other university president does.

One year a group of out-of-town high school kids had their bus and their clothes and all their luggage stolen when visiting D.C., while staying in one of the big hotels. Trachtenberg asked me to deliver boxes full of GW T-shirts from the orientation programs; we had 50 extra to take down to them.

I just don’t think there’s anybody in the country in his category. He really is on the planet to make a difference in educating the future generations. George Washington [the nation’s first president] had hoped for a university like that, to turn out students who use their education to strengthen democracy.

While some used to believe that Washington, D.C., was the most important aspect to George Washington, I realize now that inextricably, GW is the most important asset to Washington, D.C. I think Trachtenberg is the one who showed the University that about itself.

Through the extraordinary SA president reunions, our friendship has grown and grown and grown. When you are in the University community, the president is daunting—he’s bigger than life; because of all the regalia at the graduation ceremony, it almost creates a movie star effect. But you could still call Trachtenberg a friend. He is my friend.

Carrie Potter, BA ’99, MBA ’01

A native of Omaha, Neb., who now lives in Houston, Potter may be the only NBA agent (she manages the Knicks’ Steve Francis for her new venture, the Carrie Potter Group) who can count on a university president for advice on business philosophy. On occasion she joins Trachtenberg and alumni to watch Colonials’ basketball games.

President Trachtenberg is always there to help, especially during these last couple of years. I’ve been looking at what the next step in my career might be, and he’s been instrumental in giving me advice and guidance. I learned a tremendous amount about business from President Trachtenberg. If I’m in a tough situation, he’s always been extremely generous with his counsel and support. He’s built a bond with each of us presidents while he’s been in office and has been overwhelmingly supportive while we were still at the University and while we developed our careers.

The first time I met President Trachtenberg was the summer between freshman and sophomore years when I served on the Colonial Cabinet. You could tell he was very professional and very intelligent. After my election, I always had a lot of respect for the ability he has to develop a vision and to involve people in not only believing in the vision but in getting it to happen. President Trachtenberg opened up the doors to teach me not only about the student activities side but also about how the business side of the University worked, how different constituencies work. The academic side is the core. Then there is the student side, all the things students need to thrive and develop and grow, and behind the doors all the business things that make that happen—real estate, finance, tuition, University budgets, the academic calendar. He taught us how to balance all the different agendas from all the different groups and to put it all together. Students don’t see all those sides; they think, “We want this, we want this, we want this,” because you are paying all those dollars, and there’s a disconnect in realizing that those dollars fund the health and wellness center and the new academic buildings as well as immediate student concerns.

He has an open meeting time for students to come in. Every time I’d have my list, and if it was something that he couldn’t do, the answer was never “no,” or that he blew me off, or say, “I’ll look into it.” He always respected the perspective I had. He always explained the other side of the story, noting, “You might think that’s the most important thing right now, but the reason it’s not happening is because of x, y, and z.”

When I was elected being the first female, you hear a lot of stuff about that, and you don’t know how it’s going to change the dynamic of the reunion group President Trachtenberg gets together. It was male dominated. But he never made me uncomfortable for a second. President Trachtenberg always encouraged confidence in all the presidents, no matter what the trials and tribulations, wanting us to know that maintaining confidence in your talents, that’s going to carry you to your success.

In a lot of ways it is very fatherly advice. He has lots of ideas and philosophies on how business, society, and government function, and he’s always been very mindful of certain responsibilities leaders have to community and those around you.

Omar Woodard, BA ’05

In June 2005, Omar Woodard, then a senior at GW, traveled to Israel to attend a five-day foreign policy seminar with President Trachtenberg. Given tough airport screening procedures in the wake of 9/11, Omar almost didn’t make it.

I was standing in line at Kennedy International Airport in New York when security officers started asking me questions. My name is Omar. I am a Muslim. I have a beard, and I gave all of the wrong answers. They asked me if I was a Muslim, and I said yes. They asked if I spoke Arabic, and I said yes. Horrified, I realized they thought I was a terrorist.

The next thing I knew, I was pulled out of line and all of my belongings were taken away—my luggage, my camera, even my iPod. I felt discriminated against and wronged. I didn’t have anything to wear. I didn’t even have a toothbrush. In New York, I was detained for three hours, and I was held again in Tel Aviv for two hours.

Finally, I arrived at the conference five hours late and vastly underdressed, shrouded in humiliation. I was devastated. President Trachtenberg was concerned. He pulled me aside and I explained what had happened. Immediately, he put his hand on my arm, handed me some money and said, “Everything will work out. Go get yourself some new clothes and whatever else you need.” He was sincere and went out of his way to do what he didn’t have to do. He was even able to coax me out of my gloomy mood with his disarming sense of humor and cheerful demeanor. I completely forgot what I was angry about.

The rest of my week in Jerusalem was an unforgettable experience. Stereotypes about relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims were challenged by what I saw going on around me. I realized that there are more commonalities between us than differences. President Trachtenberg embodies that sentiment. He has worked hard to build bridges across races, religions, and creeds. I consider him a mentor and a friend—someone I trust implicitly.

Much later, I went to him for advice about my future. I was unsure about what I wanted to do after college, and President Trachtenberg told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “Think about where you want to be 20 years from now, and work backwards.”

That made perfect sense to me, and that’s exactly what I did to get where I am today.

Lamar Anthony Thorpe, BA ’07

Originally from Los Angeles and formerly in the U.S. Navy, Thorpe, 25, will graduate in May with a double major in women’s studies and sociology.

I met Mr. Trachtenberg when I was first elected president. We were at the Chamber of Commerce event at the Marvin Center. He told me that he expected a little bit more from me as Student Association president because I was much older. I had been in the Navy—I served in Guam as well as Connecticut. I couldn’t let him down.

I really didn’t know what to expect from a college president, because I came from a small college, Three Rivers Community College [in Norwich, Conn.]. When I did transfer here, my president, Dr. Grace Jones, said, “I know President Trachtenberg, and the best thing you can do for yourself is to meet and get to know President Trachtenberg.”

In talking with other administrators, I learned that the relationship he has with students is very rare. He plays racquetball, goes to basketball games, where he can be found wearing his buff-and-blue scarf. He’ll randomly talk to students on the street.

He has quite the cartoon character look. I think it’s easy for cartoon artists to have a field day with his look. I have a button on my backpack – Dec. 4 is “SJT Day” in the District of Columbia, and was first held in 2006. I have this button that I put on my backpack from that event.

In his retirement, I wish him the best. He certainly deserves the best. He’ll stay as a professor of public policy. Students can take his classes—and he has plenty of stories to tell.