Before the 2016 presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Joey Vettiankal intended to spend the following spring semester studying organic chemistry, molecular biology and physiological control systems.
Then the 2016 election happened.
Vettiankal abandoned his plan to be a doctor, switched majors to history and political science in Arts & Sciences and enrolled in constitutional law, environmental policy and American democracy.
“The debate and the election were the most salient experiences of my time at Washington University,” Vettiankal said. “That’s when I realized that science had always been my interest, but politics and public policy are my passion.”
Vettiankal, now senior class president, will reflect on his experiences at the university’s 158th Commencement on Friday, May 17, in Brookings Quadrangle.
“During our time at Washington University, we have experienced so many things in our personal lives, in St. Louis and in the nation,” Vettiankal said. “In my address, I will challenge us to think about how can we take those experiences and lessons and apply them to our lives to create change.”
For Vettiankal, creating change means a career in law, a path he chose after watching early media coverage of responses to the Trump administration’s ban on travel from several mostly Muslim countries.
“There were these pictures of all of these lawyers in airports writing affidavits and doing what they could to help immigrants and refugees,” recalled Vettiankal, who will work at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Missouri before attending law school. “It became instantly clear to me — I could be on the sidelines or I could be in the action doing good.”
Vettiankal already has made a lasting impact at Washington University, serving as a residential advisor; a teaching assistant for the classes “Just Do It!: Running for Public Office,” “Turning Passion into Policy” and “American Politics;” and an elected officer for the Congress of the South 40, Student Union and, now, the senior class.
He is especially proud of his Student Union initiative that mandated Student Union senators participate in sexual violence prevention training. The plan, since expanded to include all members of Student Union, was born out of Vettiankal’s frustration with proposed changes to federal Title IX rules — anger he expressed directly to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos while working as an intern for U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat.
“I left feeling concerned, but also aware that if change was going to happen, I had to take it in my own hands,” Vettiankal said. “All of us can do that in our own lives. We all have the potential to be change-makers.”