Student presidents share debate spotlight

Student Union President Kenneth Sng addresses the audience prior to the start of the 2016 presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

As Student Union president, Kenneth Sng (center) joined Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton (far right) and the Commission on Presidential Debate co-chairs Mike McCurry (left) and Frank Fahrenkopf in welcoming the world to Washington University. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“I wasn’t as composed as I appeared on TV,” said senior Kenneth Sng after the Oct. 9 presidential debate.

As president of the Student Union, Sng had the privilege of welcoming the world to the Washington University in St. Louis campus on behalf of all WashU students. “My leg was shaking the whole time,” he said.

And whose wouldn’t be? Sng, 24, a native of Singapore and a senior in mathematics and economics in Arts & Sciences, was only making the biggest public appearance of his young life. He was speaking before an estimated 60 million viewers, thousands of media and two back-stage presidential candidates, with Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton at his side and hordes of Secret Service hovering nearby.

Sng said that when he walked onstage and looked up, he could see two things over the television lights: the audience in the balcony and a countdown clock. “It was there to make sure I finished my speech in less than a minute,” he said. “You never see that on TV, and it was really nerve-racking.

“The part from when I walked onstage to the time I stood before the microphone: That passed quickly,” he said. “When I had to give the speech, though, I feel as if time slowed down. I had it on my notes to straighten up, take a deep breath and speak slowly. I really wanted to get the delivery and the tone right.”

He nailed his one-minute moment, citing Abraham Lincoln, applauding the “great democratic experiment” that is the United States, and encouraging engagement in the democratic process. “If Lincoln’s words have any meaning at all, come Nov. 8, citizens across this nation will cast their ballots and show the world that democracy as an ideal burns brightly in the dark,” Sng told the worldwide audience.

The young man’s words were, quite possibly, the high-water mark of all the words spoken on the stage that night.

Afterward, Sng said he was ushered just offstage but remained there for a few moments, only moving when a Secret Service agent whispered in his ear asking him why he was still standing there. “If it weren’t for the Secret Service, I probably would have stood there the whole time,” he said.

Moments later, Sng was ushered to a seat in the balcony above the stage floor. “I just sat there for awhile trying to process it all,” he said. “I don’t think I focused on a word of the debate for the first half-hour. I think my body was still shaking.”

A few sections over in the Athletic Complex, Haley Dolosic, a PhD-candidate in applied linguistics and president of the Graduate Professional Council (GPC), was watching the debate in person as well. As the two student-body presidents, the duo had been working tirelessly since the semester began with university administrators and student groups to help plan programming and make the debate experience special for everyone. On debate day, their schedule was packed with appearances and last-minute details, including possible meetings with the candidates if their schedules allowed.

Indeed, up to an hour before the debate, Dolosic was seen in a draped hallway behind-the-scenes of the Athletic Complex putting out last-minute fires via text message and getting GPC updates. “Holmes Lounge is filled to capacity,” Dolosic said with a big smile on her face. “That’s amazing!”

Dolosic and Sng, along with Wrighton and his wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton, got to meet and greet candidate Donald Trump, but a last-minute schedule change precluded the opportunity with Sec. Hillary Clinton before the debate.

From right: Graduate Professional Council President Haley Dolosic, Student Union President Kenneth Sng, Risa Zwerling and Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton greet presidential candidate Donald Trump before the 2016 presidential debate at Washington University. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

(From right:) Graduate Professional Council President Haley Dolosic, Student Union President Kenneth Sng, Risa Zwerling Wrighton and Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton greet presidential candidate Donald Trump before the debate . (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Still, that didn’t dampen the day for Sng or Dolosic, who both said the experience was one they will remember forever.

“Someday, I hope to honor what I learned about the democratic process through all this by sharing it with my students,” Dolosic said. “There was magic about being in this moment of history, even though this debate was one of more personal substance than substantive issues.

“The way this campaign is going is so unique,” she said. “I hope someday to teach my students that they have a voice, and that the democratic process is about hearing all voices – not just the ones you agree with.”

Sng, who went back to his office after the debate to catch up on homework, said the experience was all so surreal it was good to come back down to Earth and that he was looking forward to being just “SU president again.”

“Walking around campus the next day and seeing how quickly things got back to normal, I thought, ‘Did that just happen?’”