By Cole Caviston, Staff Writer
It hadn’t been a busy morning the Friday before Homecoming weekend for Joe Sweeney, the University of New Hampshire student body president.
“It’s definitely quieter than it usually is,” Sweeney, a junior political science major said. “A lot of the work gets done between Mondays and Thursdays; that’s when a lot of the early meetings happen with [student] senators, and today they’re usually sleeping in or have class.”
Sweeney’s small office was untidy, with a few strewn papers across his desk near his laptop, a cluttered box on the floor nearby, and a near-empty Coca-Cola bottle standing beside the window. Sweeney admits a busy schedule has kept him from cleaning since taking office last May but hopes that slow activity next month in student government will afford him some time.
Until then, Sweeney has been occupied with the balancing act of his responsibilities as president with those of his other, older positions: as vice president of membership for Phi Mu Delta and as the state representative for Salem, New Hampshire.
His experience as president so far has made Sweeney believe he is more aware of the nuances of his position.
“I think I’m more excited now. When I took office, I was hesitant and thought of the task as more daunting than it was,” Sweeney said. “You definitely grow with the position, and I think it’s definitely had a maturing effect on me — but it’s also opened my eyes to what could actually be done.”
An effective leader in all categories
At 6 feet 4 inches, Sweeney is a presence in any setting, whether it be the Student Senate or a small office, but his ability to affably engage others in a straightforward manner make him stand out others.
“Regardless of the position, Joe is a very clear leader: People kind of gravitate toward him because he is very passionate and very friendly,” said Gabe Hoffman, the Student Senate parliamentarian.
Elected along with Vice President Garrett McGlory back in early May, the pair’s responsibilities began in earnest over the summer, keeping an exact average of 19.6 hours a week, which was just short of a 20 hour goal they had set for themselves and by the Student Senate.
Hoffman — who oversaw Sweeney and McGlory’s work hours and activities over the summer — personally believes that Sweeney has an ability to promote his own vision while remaining open-minded towards others.
Working with him last year in the Student Senate has given Hoffman a positive impression of Sweeney’s capabilities, both in drawing from his own experiences to solve problems and engaging in issues.
“If we’re having a conversation about any given issue, he seems to simultaneously be able to be the person who’s most excited and most invested in the issue but not in a way that scares other people from having their opinions,” Hoffman said. “He manages to match passion with open-mindedness and that’s what I think makes him very successful.”
Striving to improve the UNH community
The level of engagement with the student body has been important for Sweeney, who believes that it has been greatly lacking in the past. While adamant in his praise for his predecessors Bryan Merrill and Will McKernan, Sweeney feels that student government prior to them at UNH, when Sweeney was a freshman, was not an institution until recently that had been taken seriously by the student body.
“We’re more of lobbying for the student body, and a lobbyist is only as good as how seriously they’re taken by the people they’re talking to,” Sweeney said, adding that he feels that student awareness of the student government has grown in recent years.
The beginning of the semester has preoccupied Sweeney from the Facebook and Twitter accounts he made early use of last semester to connect with students, but the recent popularity of the Yik Yak app has been utilized by Sweeney and McGlory to drop information to users.
“We try to reach the students in any way because we realize that students might not go on Facebook as often as they used to, or they might not follow us on Twitter, but most students can hear about us if we start engaging them on Yik Yak,” Sweeney said.
A pressing issue that Sweeney has confronted early on has been stalking and sexual assault on campus, working to continue the initiatives established by Merrill and McKernan last year. To Sweeney, UNH remains one of the safest campuses in the country, due in large part to the updated policies.
“The programs we have here are trying to be replicated across the country. I know the White House has put up our Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program like a pedestal asking other universities to adopt similar initiatives,” Sweeney said.
There are other matters that Sweeney believes can be improved, including town zoning laws, student email identification and the state of university finances.
On that, Sweeney has been working consistently behind the scenes on restoring state funding levels back to 2009 fiscal year levels.
That is an issue that Sweeney has personal stake in as a state representative. Since 2010, Joe Sweeney has been a Republican member of the State House.
Going the extra mile – to Concord – for UNH
Serving the needs of both the student body and the people of Salem in financial matters is a situation that Sweeney — a fiscal conservative — believes is an issue of reducing wasteful spending and finding better investment in state higher education that mutually beneficial for both constituents.
“The state money going to the [University System of New Hampshire] comes back to the state; it goes back to the in-state students in terms of them being able to save money by not having to increase their tuition. It comes back from all the investments the universities can put into their local communities and the jobs created there by the university and graduates,” Sweeney said.
“It’s not that I’m serving two masters; it’s that both understand the investment, obviously for different purposes,” Sweeney said. “Students here want money because they want to keep the tuition low. People in Salem, while a lot of them want to keep tuition low because they’re paying for their students to go here, can see the investment value of it.”
Elected when he was 20, the generational gap between Sweeney and other reps has been very noticeable; though he is quick to point out he is not the first member of his age group to enter the State House. Initially, other members mistook him as a staffer.
“The average age of the house is 67 years old,” Sweeney said. “There are members of the House who are 70 or 80 years older than me, which is interesting that there is a lifetime between the oldest rep and the youngest one.
“But my motivation overall was that I was concerned about our state and didn’t just want to sit back and do nothing.”
Sweeney is up for re-election next month but feels confident in his chances for re-election (Salem is a historically Republican district and voted all Republican candidates in office in 2012).
For now, Sweeney is not as occupied with the State House, which meets between January and June, but will return to Concord for second semester once a week to focus on his duties there.
Splitting time and responsibilities
“I think that if this was 50 years ago, there would be no way I could balance this,” Sweeney said. “But whatever organization I’m in, I rely on people around me to help out. It’s not all the ‘Joe Sweeney Show.’”
Delegating authority, however, has not always been an easy action for Sweeney to implement.
“Sometimes it’s hard to sit back and bite my tongue over something I don’t like, but I realize that it would undermine the entire delegation process if I was like, ‘You can do it this way,’ and then two seconds later say, ‘You should do it this way,’” Sweeney said.
Inspired by his grandfather’s legacy
A career in public service was inspired largely by Sweeney’s grandfather (“My parents kind of hate politics,” Sweeney laughed) and the legacy of service to the community his grandfather left behind, from starting a union to serving on boards and community service committees.
“I remember at his funeral seeing all the different awards and special certificates he received in his lifetime of service, and I knew that as soon as I was able to, I wanted to give back to the community in some way,” Sweeney said.
In high school, Sweeney was widely involved: student body president, class president and the core commander for junior ROTC to name a few. By the time he came to UNH, while also running for the state house, Sweeney was burnt out and made a personal pledge to not become involved in any type of student leadership.
“I completely disregarded that promise to myself, but for good reason. I didn’t realize how much I would fall in love with UNH once I got here and how much I would care for it and look for different ways to strengthen it,” Sweeney said.
As the youngest of the “founding fathers” of Phi Mu Delta chapter at UNH, which was restarted in 2012 after closure in 2008, Sweeney serves as the fraternity’s vice president of membership, which mainly keeps him busy with internal management of committees and talking with members about structural improvement.
“Being a member of Phi Mu Delta has taught me a lot in term of management and the history of UNH,” Sweeney said.
“He doesn’t sleep,” said Phi Mu Delta President Thomas Stephen, half-jokingly. “Joe sometimes seems like a 40-year-old in a 20-year-old’s body.”
But Stephen felt that Sweeney’s skill in time management makes balancing his dual responsibilities on campus easier to handle.
“I think Joe’s always had that; he works extremely well with managing himself and his roles here at UNH,” Stephen said. “He’s very good in doing all of his roles to the best of his ability.”
Getting with the Greek
Stephen first met Sweeney at a fraternity-recruiting event in spring 2013 where they struck up a conversation about the former’s uncle John Stephen, the New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2010, who Sweeney “idolized.” The two soon became close friends and worked closely together in Phi Mu Delta.
“Joe’s very relatable. He’s very good at one-on-ones, but at the same time, he works well with larger groups,” Stephen said.
For Stephen, Sweeney has, along with the other founding members, done much to promote responsibility in the community among fraternity members.
“There’s that stigma that’s held above Greeks’ heads, but Joe’s very good at showing that we can be so much more,” Stephen said.
Sweeney himself is proud about the change he said national Greek life has undergone in the past decade and is optimistic about its future, estimating that Phi Mu Delta will have 1,500 members by the end of this semester.
“As long as we can maintain the level of engagement in Greek life, I think that it has a very bright future and that we’ll be surprised in the next 20 years,” Sweeney said. “At UNH, Greek life is really finding value that the organizations on campus have.”
Despite being lauded for his engagement, Sweeney can be critical of his own personal communication.
“I think there are times when I’m not as communicative as I should be, where I keep things in my head, and I’m not open about getting from point A to point B; and when I ask people to do something, and I don’t give them the full details to get it done, I shouldn’t be surprised when they do it a different way,” Sweeney said.
Inevitably, the stack of commitments that Sweeney has takes up valuable time for himself and friends, making it difficult with personal relationships.
“I try to be as friendly and sociable as I can, but with my time taken up, it’s hard,” Sweeney said. “One of my friends described it as, ‘Joe, we like going to dinner with you, but we can’t go to dinner with you if you’re just going to talk about zoning laws and the stalking policy.’”
Sweeney does not actively speculate on what may come for him come senior year and graduation, but his experience in leadership across multiple fields has taught him much during his time here at UNH.
“I think being able to see common themes and being reminded of scenarios that I experienced as a junior and senior in high school, this job, or at my fraternity, seeing how generally people operate, how people live as human beings and how they react to certain leadership — this has been the best thing that I’ve gotten out of it,” Sweeney said.