Trish Palermo: Advocating for All

Trish Palermo faces unique challenges as student body president in a turbulent political climate

Photographer: Mariah Crabb

Trish Palermo’s alarm blares every weekday morning at 5 a.m. Her fingers stretch to silence the noise, but she won’t get out of bed anytime soon. Instead, the snooze takes a beating until it’s actually time to get moving at 6 a.m.

Sitting in her kitchen, she downs an entire pot of coffee by herself as she checks her email.  On campus her classes are sandwiched by meetings with the university administration and the Minnesota Student Association. She spends spare moments of downtime in the MSA office.

Representing 30,000 undergraduate students is like trying to sprint a marathon; it’s a jam-packed year-long position full of ups and downs without much time to catch your breath. It is anything but boring. You have to be all in, and Palermo has been in for the long haul.

The MSA office is a raucous place. Committees congregate, and members sprawl on chairs, chat and do homework. You can usually find Palermo discussing executive matters with Student Body Vice President Erik Hillesheim, flitting around the room to talk to different groups, or planted in the corner typing away at her laptop.

That’s exactly where I found her. As she clacks at the keyboard, her phone rings. She sighs, and answers it quietly. The conversation lasts but a minute or two, and when it’s done, she sighs again and sets her phone down. She stands. Palermo may be short, but her presence is commanding. Her dark, wavy hair is gathered at the nape of her neck. Her clear blue eyes sweep the room to meet mine.

“Are you ready?” she asks expectantly. How could I not be? Time is fleeting, especially for Palermo , and I want to catch as many of her words as I can.

A passion for advocacy

Since she was a teenager, Palermo has been driven by a desire to improve the lives of those around her. Competing in political categories during high school speech tournaments opened her eyes to activism and involvement. A mother who hails from Lebanon and a family who still resides there stoked a passion for human rights advocacy.

Palermo started her career in student governance as a freshman intern for MSA. A year later she became the Committee Director for the MSA Campus Life Committee.

After her sophomore year, she was elected chair of the Student Senate, which governs all five University of Minnesota campuses. She couldn’t juggle working with both organizations, so she chose the Senate, where she thought she could have a greater impact. She loved writing policy during her time as chair, but felt something was missing.

“Student government has evolved from advocating to extend all of our rights to holding onto the rights that we have,” Palermo said.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Palermo was left feeling as though her work in MSA wasn’t done. She sought to have a more direct impact on the students of the Twin Cities campus. The university’s undergraduate government would allow her to do more than write policy; she would have a direct relationship with the students she represented. When election season came around last winter, Palermo felt a calling. She ditched her plans to run for senate chair a second time, and threw her hat in the ring for student body president.

“Because of everything at stake for students,” she said, “I felt like I had no choice but to run.”

From the recent federal rescindment of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, to rolling back portions of Title IX—the federal law that prevents discrimination in academic settings—the new administration has forced Palermo to put MSA on the defensive, a role that sets her apart from past presidents.

“Student government has evolved from advocating to extend all of our rights to holding onto the rights that we have,” Palermo said.

Advocating for the student body

Palermo built her platform around concerns she has heard students voice throughout her time at the U. From conversations she had as a first-year with her peers, to discussions she had with freshmen as a CA, to emails that she receives on a daily basis, she truly wants to be a voice for the student body.

Her largest projects have focused on improving student quality of life and safety. Palermo has emboldened the university to hold Aramark—the supplier for all campus dining halls—accountable for their questionable ethics and employee mistreatment. Palermo also championed a wider variety of food in student housing to increase options for students with different dietary needs, such as providing kosher and halal options.

She’s also put her energy towards new projects, such as MSA’s landlord accountability campaign that launched Nov. 26, and allows students to see which local landlords have had at least three unresolved legal disputes with renters. The list includes apartments such as The Rail and Prime Place, and rental companies like Dinkytown Rentals. Palermo hopes this list will help students avoid the guessing game of picking reliable landlords once they move off campus.

After last spring’s contentious election, Palermo is determined to make the most of her final year in MSA. She is neither concerned with following in the footsteps of her predecessors, nor setting an example for those that will come after her. What she values above all else, is getting work done.

“As for my own publicity, I prefer to highlight members of my team and the work that they’re doing,” she said.

A compelling leader

Palermo’s team holds the same respect for her as she does for them. When asked about their leader, they pause, and their eyes stretch upwards toward the ceiling; not for a lack of words, but because they’re formulating the best possible response about a person they care so deeply for.

Introduced by a mutual friend, Palermo met her vice president less than a year ago at Wally’s Falafel and Hummus over winter break. Hillesheim has been impressed by her conviction and tenacity since their first meeting.

“She’s a complete badass, and knows how to get things done,” he said, as his hands gestured wildly to articulate his appreciation.

Sophomore and Committee Director for Campus Life James Farnsworth feels similarly. Farnsworth met Palermo last year through social media. As a freshman, he was unsatisfied with dining hall food, and posted on Facebook soliciting recommendations from peers on what they would like to see changed. Palermo saw the post and reached out to him, advising him on how to most effectively reach other students, and suggested meeting in person to talk more. As they got to know each other better, she asked him to be a volunteer coordinator for her campaign, and the two worked closely throughout the process.

“She really champions authentic advocacy, she really listens to students, she really cares about what we’re working on,” said Farnsworth. “It’s not about her, it’s about the issues and being really responsive to students.”

Faith in the process

Above all else, Palermo wants to ensure that students understand the unique position they are in. Being able to go into a meeting and provide their opinion is something that students underestimate. She stresses that the university does care about its students, and when there are specific requests to be advocated for, she is confident the administration will listen.

“Because of everything at stake for students,” she said, “I felt like I had no choice but to run.”

“I have so much faith in the process,” she said. “When there are these issues, there are ways to address them.”

When asked if she sees a career in politics, she furrows her brow, draws a quick breath, exhales a curt, “no,” and laughs. She has loved every minute of this experience and would never take it back, but her true passions lie elsewhere. She plans to take a year or two off after she graduates, and then pursue a law degree, focusing on international law. She hopes to become a human rights attorney.

Of course, being the head of an entire nonprofit can be overwhelming. She knows when to prioritize her own well-being. When Palermo truly has a free moment to herself, she enjoys cooking—not well, she claims—as well as rollerblading and knitting.

“When I was a CA in T-hall I started a group called Nifty Knitters, which was awesome, I should start that back up,” she said, chuckling to herself.

Living in a political environment that does not prioritize students is what keeps Palermo motivated. The reason she ran for president, created her platform, and sets her alarm for 5 a.m. every morning, is for the students.

“I think the student voice is really important,” she said. “And it’s really powerful.”

The days can be long, but even Palermo goes to bed at some point. Upon returning home she checks her email once more, watches an episode of “Friends” on Netflix, then goes bed to do it all again the next day.