Former leader of UA Rachel Fersh offers advice, memories
Fersh was UA chair as a senior in 2006
· April 6, 2014, 8:27 pm · Updated April 7, 2014, 3:31 pm
Joyce Kim has large shoes to fill — shuttle-sized shoes.
Joyce Kim’s election as Undergraduate Assembly president marks the first time a woman will head Penn’s student government since 2006. Her predecessor, 2006 College graduate Rachel Fersh, started the airport shuttle service, one of the UA’s most identifiable initiatives.
“I can’t take credit for it — it wasn’t my idea. But it’s great that there’s something the UA is given credit for. That’s a great type of project that directly affected students and directly connected the administration with students on campus — plus it’s branded well,” Fersh said.
A philosophy, politics and economics major, Fersh was the chairwoman of the UA as a senior in 2006. In 2010, the UA replaced the position of chair with a president, who is elected by the entire student body instead of just the UA.
Fersh credits her experience on the UA and the associated skills her position required for much of her professional success, describing student government as a valuable chance to grow as a leader.
“The beautiful part of being involved in student government in college is that you can try all sorts of new things with very limited consequences. In real life, you can lose a job or lose a lot of money. At Penn, you can do some short-term damage if you really tried, but there are fewer consequences,” Fersh said.
In addition to the airport shuttles, Fersh’s accomplishments as UA chair included a freshman housing reform project and an initiative for members of the UA steering committee to present student-perceived priorities for the improvement of student life to top members of the administration.
The newly elected UA leadership has expressed hopes of engaging student groups across campus in the endeavors of student government. Even eight years ago, students were apathetic about student government. Fersh recalls this being the most difficult part of leading the UA.
“It’s hard to run an organization that’s supposed to represent a broad swath of people who don’t care that you’re helping them,” Fersh said. “There’s only so much you can do ... Some students won’t care about student government unless it becomes relevant in a specific way.”
In an effort to spark student interest in the UA, Fersh launched a UA “branding logo” and started a campaign in which the UA funded events held by individual student groups and advertised them as “UA spotlight events.” Despite the efforts, student investment in the UA did not increase drastically.
During Fersh’s experience in student government, she was diagnosed with several autoimmune disorders. As a sophomore, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which causes inflammation in the lining of the digestive tract, and was in the hospital during that year’s election cycle. Few people knew of Fersh’s illness in college, including during her tenure as chair. She says the experience of balancing health with leadership lent itself to valuable life lessons.
Fersh’s fondest memories of her tenure in Penn’s student government fall in the non-business sphere, however. “Most of my favorite memories are actually social ones,” she said. “I made some of my best friends through student government.”
After graduating from Penn, Fersh took her interest in politics to the next level.
Immediately after graduation, Fersh embarked on a month-long Jewish immersion program in California, where she met her husband, after which she served as a government affairs fellow at the Partnership for Public Service. Appropriately, Fersh’s responsi bilities were aimed at convincing Americans of the relevance of the U.S. government.
Next, Fersh worked for the Committee on States, a political organization geared toward helping progressive groups in various states by matching groups with donors to help build political infrastructure. Hired at age 22, Fersh believes that her UA chair experience helped her secure the job.
Law school came next on Fersh’s agenda. After earning a law degree from Georgetown, she worked as an associate at Goodwin Procter LLC in Washington, D.C., working in corporate litigation. Ultimately, Firsh decided that the demanding schedule of a corporate law firm was incompatible with her health and left Goodwin Procter last June.
In the future, Fersh hopes to bring her skills to the public service realm, hoping to work for candidates or elected officials on policy issues.
“I’ve always loved politics. I like the governing part of politics more than the campaigning part of politics,” Fersh said.
As Kim’s closest female predecessor, Fersh was informed of Kim’s election soon after the victory. “I’m very excited that there’s a woman back in charge, and I hope she has a great year,” she said.