When she was in high school, Deborah Steinberg ’14 studiously avoided the spotlight. She volunteered to help build the sets for school plays but never wanted to be part of the cast. When nominations opened for student council, she never considered running for president or vice president. “I ran for secretary, because that meant I could stay behind the scenes and not have a leadership role,” Steinberg says.
So how did this shy, unassuming young woman end up with the top job in Vassar’s student government? Steinberg’s journey to the presidency of the Vassar Student Association (VSA) began more or less by accident three years ago. She was living at Noyes House and saw a notice about upcoming house elections and decided to run for secretary. “Then I learned one of my best friends really wanted the job, so I dropped out,” Steinberg recalls. “Then somebody said, ‘Why don’t you run for house president?’ Reluctantly, I said OK.”
Once she got the job, Steinberg, a psychology major from Boston, discovered she loved it. At the time, she says, Noyes House had a reputation as “kind of a quirky place,” so she and other house leaders set out to change its image. “We organized some positive events, such as the first Noyes Talent Show, karaoke nights, and study break parties,” Steinberg says, including an event launched the year before called “Study Break Things” during midterms and finals. “These are times when people are really stressed out, so we gathered a bunch of things – pieces of cardboard, towers of paper cups, bubble wrap, a piñata – that people could smash to relieve their tension,” she explains. “It was really successful.”
The issues Steinberg and other members of the VSA’s executive board are dealing with are a lot more serious, but Steinberg says the skills she acquired as president of Noyes are helping her meet the challenge. “The other members of the executive board all have specific jobs, and mine is to coordinate all of them, to facilitate things so the projects get done,” she says. “That’s something I found out I’m pretty good at.”
Two jobs at the top of her list are helping to cultivate a climate of inclusion for Vassar’s increasingly diverse student body and helping student organizations find sufficient space for their activities. That issue has become more critical because the college had originally planned to move the college bookstore into a building just off-campus, opening more space in the College Center for student groups. Because of the recession, the college cancelled those plans.
To help foster inclusion, Steinberg said the VSA approved funding for a dinner and workshop hosted by a recently formed student group, the Class Issues Alliance. “Both events were really successful, and we’re also working closely with the ALANA Center and the LGBTQ center on these issues,” she says.
Steinberg said she and other members of the executive board plan to meet with college administrators and the board of trustees to explore ways to find more space for student activities now that the bookstore is remaining on campus.
While tackling these and other issues is enjoyable and challenging, Steinberg says, it’s also enormously time consuming. Since being elected president, she has curtailed her participation in theater and other non-academic activities on campus. But she says the trade-off is well worth it. “This entire experience has given me a self-confidence I didn’t know I had,” she says.
Steinberg said she was recently elected president of a national honor society for college psychology majors. “That’s something I never would have even aspired to a couple of years ago,” she says.
Dean of the College Christopher Roellke says he has enjoyed watching Steinberg grow into her role as a student leader. “Deb is just so upbeat — she’s not daunted by anything and I appreciate her diplomacy, her ability to consider all sides of an argument and work to find a consensus on a wide variety of issues,” Roellke says. “She’s universally admired by the students and faculty and administration.
“Deb also has a great sense of humor, and that’s something you really need in that job,” Roellke adds.
Edward Pittman, associate dean of the college for campus life and diversity, says Steinberg and the other members of the VSA executive board are an asset to the college. “It’s a very engaged leadership team,” Pittman says. “I'm impressed with their mindfulness to creating inclusive environments relating to all aspects of diversity. Campus Life works closely with the VSA, and I find this relationship extremely helpful and mutually beneficial. They are great partners in the work we do on campus.”
Roellke notes the VSA has more power – and controls more money – than most student governments elsewhere. He says Steinberg and others in key leadership roles have exercised that power wisely. “Student government elections can make college administrators nervous,” he says. “But I’ve worked with six VSA presidents since I’ve been here, and all six times, the students got it right.”