AAS President Goes Beyond Appearances
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2012 - 13:19
Photo courtesy of Romen Borsellino '12
Borsellino created an interdisciplinary major in political psychology

While Association of Amherst Students President Romen Borsellino served as the elected face of the student body this year, his commitment to student government and everything else that he has touched at Amherst goes far beyond mere appearances. Although he long loved politics and dedicated to making the school a better place through his roles on the AAS, the friendships he forged in the past four years too have undoubtedly played a major role in shaping his Amherst experience. In addition, Borsellino certainly took advantage of Amherst’s academic resources, crafting an interdisciplinary major specific to his interest in political psychology.

Childhood and Family Life

Borsellino’s enduring interest in politics and his strong ties to his family developed during his upbringing in Des Moines, Iowa. With an Italian father and an Indian mother, Borsellino was exposed to two different cultures as a child. He says that he “really did have a storybook childhood, in a lot of ways.” He calls his parents “incredible” and appreciates his “blessed” childhood not only with them, but with his older brother Raj as well.

His aunt, Amherst professor Amrita Basu, called him “very funny and very theatrical” as a young boy, recalling in particular the many family gatherings that revolved around “shows that Romen, his brother and cousins put together” in which Borsellino would “don his home-made costumes and sing songs he had made up” for the entire group. His favorite food during these days was tater tot casserole; in fact, unsatisfied with the frequency of this meal at home, “at age three or four, Romen announced very seriously that he had started packing to move in with his best friend Wade’s family so that he could eat his favorite food there,” recalled Basu.

Amusing anecdotes like this only scratch the deep sense of family that has been paramount in his life; although Borsellino has always been outgoing, he agreed that “it was always family first.” In 2000, he moved to Florida with his brother and parents. Since he knew nobody in the area at first, he spent a lot of time with his family and reinforced the bonds that had already been made.

The nurturing and loving atmosphere that Borsellino became accustomed to was rocked with tragedy when Borsellino was 16, when his father passed away from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. While Borsellino says that “words can’t do justice to how I felt or how tragic that was,” he also emphasized that his father’s death gave him a profound realization that he had “been incredibly lucky to have a father like him” and also gave him a stronger appreciation for his mother, who he calls “the reason for everything I do in life and the person in the world whose opinion I care most about.” His brother Raj also played an important role at this point; although the two had always been extremely close, he developed into “not only a brother but a best friend, and at some point a father figure, as well” for Borsellino, a relationship that continues to this day.

Early Interest in Politics

Even as a boy, Borsellino was never afraid to campaign among his peers for a good cause. An early starter, he organized a school-wide campaign in elementary school to donate hundreds of boxes of unused crayons to underprivileged children. As he got older, the influence of his home environment, which was “immersed in community, state and national politics” according to Basu, swayed him into school politics. His campaigns earned him a reputation as a great political strategizer, who was asked to run others’ campaigns. He volunteered for both the Barack Obama and Howard Dean campaigns in high school, exposing himself to politics at the highest level. As president of his high school, he hosted actor Kal Penn during Penn’s time campaigning for Obama; Penn was so impressed by Borsellino’s enthusiasm and commitment that he took him to the White House and later introduced him to Obama himself during a roundtable event in Iowa. In addition, his brother also said that Borsellino orchestrated a variety of less publicized events, including “volunteering at local animal shelters, advocating against sexual assault and hate speech and raising money for local charities in Iowa.”

Coming to Amherst

Borsellino’s family continued to influence him, even in making the decision to come to the College. With an Amherst faculty member in the family, Borsellino felt more than comfortable choosing to become a Lord Jeff, and cited Basu as “the reason why [coming to Amherst] was the best decision I have ever made.” However, he does remember an initial worry that Amherst might be “overly robotic or preppy,” and was relieved to find an open and welcoming atmosphere instead. Dan Alter ’13, who lived on the same floor as Borsellino in Charles Pratt dormitory, remembered that “Borsellino left a very big impression on most people from the start” by always leaving his door open and establishing his room as a social center for his fellow first-years. Alter and Borsellino formed a strong bond through a multitude of shared experiences; more specifically, Alter recalls one rainy day when Borsellino insisted that the pair of them “change into bathing suits and ponchos and sprint to Val in the pouring rain” on a whim.

Borsellino also remembered those days fondly and said that they set the stage for the rest of his Amherst experience and the “unbelievable friendships” that have defined his time here. Borsellino considered himself “lucky” and “blessed” to have met people like Alter, his “friend and confidant” Alex Stein, and many other friends, such as his first-year roommate Peter Skurman and his Lip Sync winning room group. As Borsellino’s girlfriend Kyra Ellis-Moore ’15 said, all of his friends love him for his “special ability to bring all different kinds of people together,” adding, “you can rely on him to be the devil’s advocate, the comic relief and most importantly, a fiercely loyal friend.”

Finding a Passion at Amherst

Although when Borsellino first got involved with the AAS, he admitted that he “did it just because it was something to do,” he quickly realized that “it was an incredible avenue for getting connected with the school both as an institution and personally with students.” Beginning a practice that would serve him well in future elections, Borsellino started his door-to-door campaigning style at the end of his first year. His friends also helped with his campaigning. Alter remembers that on election day, he “spent the whole day in the lobby of Charles Pratt at the base of the staircase” so that “every time somebody walked in, I got them to vote and not even necessarily for him.”

This encouragement for people to invest in their student government, whether they voted for Borsellino or not, became a pillar of Borsellino’s platform when he ran for AAS President at the end of his junior year. As for the time leading up to the election itself, Borsellino jokes that “if I’ve ever had a stressful three weeks in my life, that was it.” Throughout his campaigning, Borsellino reached out to all the groups in the Amherst community. He vividly recalled, in the eleventh hour, “wearing a suit and tie, making a total fool of myself knocking on doors.” Indeed, he remains very proud of the inclusive principle behind these efforts, saying that they “showed students that it was possible to connect with student government in ways they hadn’t thought of before.”

Even after being elected, Borsellino maintained that he “wanted students who knew nothing about AAS to start paying attention and show them that we were interested in reaching out to everyone.” In addition, he set goals to “increase transparency and accessibility” and to “influence student life both temporarily and in the long-term.” In his time as president, he worked with President Martin on long-term projects and “even had the opportunity to sit down with President Obama last July and talk about some of the work the AAS has done in recent years,” according to his brother. Despite these notable accomplishments, Borsellino is most proud of his actions to help bring this year’s spring concert to fruition at a time when having the event at all seemed doubtful. He and a few other AAS members refused to give up, and they eventually helped Program Board bring Ludacris.

The Academic Experience

From his first semester at Amherst, Borsellino developed an interest in psychology that complemented his passion for politics. He managed to integrate and develop both realms into something he cared about by his senior year — a thesis entitled “Electing Charisma: American Democracy in Action.” Borsellino was advised by Professor Andrew Poe, who he says “brought out a desire in me to be the best student that I can possibly be.”

For his part, Poe considers Borsellino’s seminal work at Amherst to be the final paper he wrote for Poe’s Political Emotions class on “wit as a ground for political critique.” While he admires Borsellino’s thesis work, Poe recalls this specific paper with great pride, saying that it “was a perfect synthesis of Romen’s interests with the material of the class, and it seemed as though he found his voice in writing it — whatever Amherst gave to Romen, it was evident in that paper.” He also observed that Borsellino’s efforts in the classroom have crafted a voice and identity all his own and avoided a common pitfall of many students, who “either conform or rebel absolutely to the intellectual forces around them.”

A Promising Future

As he leaves Amherst, Borsellino plans to continue his work in politics by taking a position on Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign in some capacity. Beyond that, his future remains open to several possibilities, including potentially following the footsteps of his brother to law school.

In any case, those close to him can only marvel at the growth he has displayed in the last four years. According to Basu, while he “remains a prankster,” he has “become more focused, harder working and more intellectually curious at Amherst.” Ellis-Moore echoed this sentiment, saying “He loves Amherst College and has put everything that he has into this place. He will miss Amherst, and it will miss him.” His brother spoke for all his friends and family when he said, “I can only imagine how high he will soar when he goes out into the real world.” Indeed, when this passionate and devoted president, friend, brother, student and son leaves Amherst, Lord Jeffs will also look forward to hearing of his future successes.