Political gladiator

Speaker of SA Assembly, Melissa Kathan, hopes to make it to the Òpolitical arenaÓ


Melissa Kathan was in the third grade when she beat a fourth grader in a race for her student council’s secretary position.

Kathan, a junior political science major and speaker of the Student Association Assembly, heard she would be able to make a speech in front of 600 students and loved it.

Since then, Kathan has represented her peers through multiple student government positions throughout her life.

Kathan is currently the SA Assembly speaker and the associate director of Government Relations for State Operated Campuses, as part of the State University of New York Student Assembly (SUNYSA).

Kathan also juggles her student government positions with a part-time job at Starbucks, a presidency position in her Honor Society and classwork to graduate early.

This has all been in preparation for a future in politics and law for Kathan.

“I am definitely in love with the political arena,” she said.

Kathan said there are many powerful women like Hilary Clinton and Mother Teresa who influence her life. But she considers her grandfather, who tells her World War II stories, to be her role model.

He taught her the most important lessons in life: family comes first, faith is most important and education is a privilege.

“Like any proud grandparent, he believes that there is no limit for my future and never fails to tell me on every phone call that someday I will run a successful campaign and help the lives of many” Kathan said.

Val DeSantis, Kathan’s aunt, spoke on behalf of Kathan’s grandfather because he currently has mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by asbestos. She said Kathan “makes [him] very happy to be a grandfather.”

Kathan said his disease is causing him to “fade” with each day.

She described watching someone lose himself as “the most humbling, emotional, painful and distracting process.” It is the first thing she thinks about when she wakes up and it burdens her all day and causes sleepless nights.

“But life is taken each day at a time,” Kathan said. “And if I even get to speak to him for a few seconds on the phone today, then it is a good day.”

DeSantis said Kathan’s grandfather tells everyone his granddaughter is a leader who will get things done and will accomplish anything she sets out to do.

Kathan hopes she can someday live up to her grandfather’s expectations and she said she works hard every day to do so.

To make her grandfather proud, Kathan puts the majority of her time and effort into her passion of student government. As the speaker of the SA Assembly for her second year in a row, Kathan is in charge of organizing and leading SA Assembly meetings.

The SA Assembly is in charge of the SA Constitution and facilitates discussions to create resolutions representing the student body’s opinion, according to the SA website.

Kathan first got involved with the SA Assembly in her freshman year, and since then, through her help, the number of members has grown from 12 to 50.

Kathan has also helped the SA Assembly to “[break] out of the mold of just going through the amendments and just meeting.”

She recently helped put together the SA Assembly’s first event, a research fair that was involved with the Center for Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities. Under Kathan’s guidance, the SA Assembly is also planning its first “What is SA day?” event. The event is meant to educate students on SA and opportunities the organization offers, and will take place early next semester.

SA president James Ingram graduated from the same high school as Kathan in Fairport, New York. He said he loves it when people from his high school become active in UB.

Ingram said Kathan is an active person and even with all her responsibilities, she knows how to properly manage her time.

“I would not be surprised if somewhere along the line, we see Melissa running for a public office position,” Ingram said.

He said she has a “natural tendency” for the political field, but whatever she chooses, she will be great at it.

At the start of this semester, Kathan joined SUNYSA as their associate director of government relations for state operated campuses.

SUNYSA is the SUNY level of student government and overlooks the 64 campuses in the state. SUNYSA members attend monthly meetings on different SUNY campuses and participate in conference calls at least once a week.

She said they have been working on the legislative agenda, which is a list of issues that affects most SUNY students. If the agenda gets approved at the monthly conferences, the members will reach out to set up meetings with senators and congressmen and advocate on behalf of the students.

Marc Cohen, the senior director for external relations for SUNYSA, said Kathan “clearly has her finger on the pulse of the students on her campus.”

In the five months Cohen worked with Kathan, he has found she is passionate about being a figurehead. Even though it is out of her realm, Kathan has taken on SUNY issues along with her specific focus on state operated campuses, Cohen said.

“Had I chosen to go to the University at Buffalo, I would be able to rest assured knowing that Melissa was my representative in the Assembly, that she was speaking out for what's in the best interest of students, ” Cohen said.

Chris and Ken Kathan, Kathan’s parents, said their daughter always had a “flare of leadership.” They noticed these qualities in their daughter since she first started pre-school.

“Most of [the] children were clinging to their moms,” Kathan’s parents said in an email. “But Melissa left the circle and went to climb the mats and jump off.”

They said eventually the other children followed her and week after week, they would look to her for the lead.

Kathan’s parents said their daughter used to volunteer at the Church of the Assumption back at home in Fairport. Once a week, the church would host homeless families with children and Kathan would spend time on the weekends and evenings reading and playing with the children, they said. They said Kathan would also play her guitar for the children.

Chris and Ken said there was one little boy who was particularly interested in guitars and Kathan taught the boy to play. She saw how passionate the boy was about learning, that at the end of the week, she gave up her guitar for him to keep.

They said the boy’s face “lit up” and the boy’s mother was in tears.

“I hope it helped him cause they have so much to deal with,” Kathan said. “And me giving a guitar away, if it can make his day, it was worth it.”

Jennifer Merckel, a senior civil and aerospace engineering major, said her close friend is involved with “everything.”

“I'm not really sure how she does it all,” Merckel said. “But I really admire her dedication to everything she does.”

Although this is Kathan’s third year, she plans on graduating at the end of the spring semester. Afterward, she plans on getting her Masters of Public Administration from the University at Albany and later on, go to law school.

With her interests in the government, Kathan said studying in the state capital would be a better fit for her interests.

Kathan hopes, in the future, to run for some sort of office or become a judge.

“I feel like I’ve taken advantage of everything that I am capable of and I’m excited and [feeling] a little bit of nostalgia as I go through the last year here,” Kathan said.

At the end of a busy schedule, Kathan said the “highlight” of her week is still talking on the phone with her grandfather.

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