We loved sitting down with Shilpa Topudurti, former Student Body President at the University of Rochester, to hear about all of her successes post-presidency. You can meet Shilpa at our inaugural Campus Legacy Awards luncheon and get her insights on life in person! Buy your tickets today.
How did your experience as student body president at the University of Rochester shape who you are as a person and as a leader?
There was an impact on me and the way I work with people. When I think about me personally, when you are going through an experience where you have such a limited amount of time to make impact and you have so much pressure to execute on things that really matter to so many different people, it really teaches you to recognize what you can and can’t do in that time and really focus in on what matters to you most.
In terms of working with different types of people, I had been involved with student government before I was president. I had done it since my freshman year and I had just gotten exposed to working with people that were so different from me and I learned to let go and allow other people to bring their strengths to the table, challenge me and capitalize on what it means to have a team rather than just have a leader, so really embracing that upward management that I was getting from other people. That’s taught me lessons on how to do that — now in the workforce, I’m not necessarily the one that’s making the decisions, but you realize some of the skills you can have to influence decisions for people above you.
What did you run on and what are you most proud of accomplishing?
With student government, especially with the high turnover with the people involved and the leadership styles, you go through these cycles of issues that face students. There’s this idea that we, as a student body, are responsible for everything and we have to execute on X-Y-Z and you become an insular environment where you are working with the same kinds of people and you have the students say, “What’s going on? We don’t know what’s going on. We don’t feel like we’re involved.” I came in at a point where a lot of students were feeling disenfranchised and there was a lack of transparency and disengagement. We were seen as the people that did a few services that people recognized with student government but beyond that, there wasn’t [a focus on] how we were moving forward and how we were addressing the changes now.
A big platform issue that we ran on was connectivity both with students and with the administration. To capitalize on that, what we did was a lot of benchmarking to recognize that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time, but we can look to other student body presidents at other institutions to see what they did to move the dial. I believe it was Northwestern that did a 5k challenge where they said that if you had $5,000, which is such a small amount for students, what would you do to
I believe it was Northwestern that did a 5k challenge where they asked, "If you had $5,000, what would you do to better campus?" It was a way to generate a ton of ideas and the students actually vote on which one to implement and then you get funding and you actually do it in a short period of time. What came out of that and what was really cool is that we got a higher turnout than in elections for this because they were like this is awesome, I get something out of it. It really brought to attention a lot of things that we were like, "We can do this anyway — we should be doing this." We ended up being able to fund like five or six ideas in six months and I’m proud of it because it’s still going on today and that’s still three or four years later.
We also got way more women engaged in student government. We got a greater proportion of minorities engaged, maybe not necessarily in elected positions right away but recognizing that we needed to engage the broader student community that was not necessarily feeling like they were included.
The connectivity goes beyond the students. We realized that some of the issues we had gotten down to the low-hanging fruit, the stuff that was remaining was around stuff like how we get students to have a voice at the table for things that are beyond things like getting busses for spring break like how do you get them to really shape academics or how do you get them to be talking to the senior administration that’s making the decisions on tuition and all these other things. So we actually started one of the new standing committees, Academics, something that we weren’t doing before. We started establishing clear-cut relationships with a lot of senior folks that ran various departments on campus and didn’t exist, the library being a big one. We had a renovation there and students were actually involved in how we wanted the space to look and how we wanted it to be innovative. I’m really excited whenever I hear about how these relationships are now just standing, it’s not a thing you have to fight for. The students and the administration realized going both ways they were benefitting.
I actually recognize this from going to the Presidential Leadership Summit that there’s such a wide range of what student government actually means at each institution. We’re a relatively small school, we have 5,000 students that we’re fighting for, we don’t represent graduate students and these aren’t paid positions: they’re completely volunteer positions. The responsibilities and what you’re held accountable for are totally different. All in all, we wanted to fight to make sure student government was a voice that looked to improve the lives of students in ways that we really hadn’t before.
Why does representation matter in student government?
At the end of the day, you can say you’re making decisions on behalf of everybody but your experiences are really going to dictate what you think is a best practice and what you think is best to do. It’s important to have folks there to speak from their own personal experiences and for people that they’re friends with and groups that they represent not just by saying oh you know I stopped by Starbucks and talked to a few people that I didn’t know and here’s what they had to say. I think you have to get a little bit deeper, and on a broader perspective, the reason representation matters is because it kind of fosters that continued idea that your voice is going to be heard. It’s really hard if you feel like you can’t look to someone when there’s a huge panel of folks that you know are making decisions for you that you’re like I don’t relate to any of them and if I don’t see any commonality there, then I don’t think I fit in. You should always have that outlet of someone you can look too that you feel that represents you in a way that is a little bit more tangible than just at elections when everyone is trying to talk to each other.
We tried to do that during our administration. Obviously, by the time that you’re elected, there’s less of an ability to get people into elected positions, but there’s obviously a lot of appointed positions. We tried to do a lot of stuff working with our intercultural center on campus, which had been new. We tapped into a lot of student groups that we knew were not fighting against us but we knew that there was tension there, so we were like let’s work together. We got some of their key leaders and got them engaged not just with us but instead bringing them into the conversations we were having with university leadership so they could give them their voice instead of just telling us and having us filter it to them. So it was appointed positions and when it came down to elections it since we were really small, was just about getting the word out to all student groups and organizations, RAs and going to meetings, kind of just like boots on the ground.
What were your expectations going into office? What successes or challenges surprised you about serving as student body president?
I knew I wasn’t going to necessarily be popular in every decision that I made and that was hard to accept because you go from a period of getting everybody’s input and trying to build your platform and spending the whole summer before the school year planning what you want to do and recognizing there’s no way you can do it all. I knew it was going to be a lot of time, I knew it was going to be a lot of making hard decisions. What I was probably most surprised by was the element of no matter how much you plan for everything, at the end of the day, stuff comes up that you didn’t anticipate. Whether that is a lot of racial tension and a lot of stuff you couldn’t anticipate or plan for that was really hard. On one hand you’re balancing getting information from the administration and having to put on a happy face and then also getting conflicting information from students, so really recognizing at what point you want to be able to balance the relationships you have with folks that are bringing you into these conversations and with the students that you’re actually representing and the resistance there.
I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to get things done. I had spent so much of my time in Senate and that was totally different. Everything we did in our administration had to be approved by Senate, so navigating everybody in those seats and making sure that they were all on board and okay with what we’re doing was hard, especially when you’re there long hours and you have to think about engaging people and making it exciting but also making it very meaningful. You realize it’s not possible to make an impact without working together.
How did serving in this role equip you for your postgraduate success? What are you up to now?
When you’re in this type of role you’re forced to think a lot about tradeoffs a lot more. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at recognizing how to take ownership of my decisions and how to make decisions quickly but in an informed way. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is seeking to understand before seeking to challenge. It goes back to the idea that when you’re a person who’s typically involved in student government you’re really passionate and you have really strong views and we’re quick to jump to conclusions. It’s made me think a lot more and try to understand people or things that may be different. So that’s definitely one and on top of that, when you’re in a high-pressure role where you’re balancing this is technically an extracurricular but it’s really not, you learn to manage your time and to really focus on things that you’re most passionate about rather trying to boil the ocean. I think that’s helped me in zeroing in on what I wanted to do post-grad because for a really long time, I majored in science and thought I maybe wanted to go to med school but then I thought maybe I wanted to do law school or business school. Eventually, I learned from that that I want to pick a path I’m really interested in and just move forward with it.
Right after graduating, I went to the London School of Economics and I studied international health policy and health economics. While I was there, I got to leverage a lot of my background in science by tapping into international health. We did a lot of work with WHO and we did some work with NHS and got to take a lot of those lessons back and apply them at McKinsey in their London office in their pharmaceuticals and medical products practice. I was working on new product launches for drugs and devices and thinking about innovative pricing models. That has been a huge asset now because I’ve taken all that international experience and channeled it into healthcare in the US, which is obviously at a turning point.
What advice would you give to recently elected student body presidents based on your own experiences?
I would go back to what I said before: seek to understand before seeking to challenge. Another thing, you’re in an incredible position to influence the next year of student life on campus, take that, recognize it but also be very realistic. Sometimes the smallest changes can bring the biggest impact. Lastly, be yourself. It’s easy to get pulled in multiple directions but remember why you got involved and what it means to you. At the end of the day, that passion will really drive change.