For many teenagers, there is no bigger decision than the college decision. Jesse Tompkins ’20 was not an exception, but he faced an even more significant choice as he prepared to start the next phase of his education.
“When I came to Furman, I decided I was going to be open about my sexuality,” said Tompkins. “I was not open about it in high school, and I was very surprised at how I was embraced on this campus and how I could feel at home even with that part of myself exposed.”
Three years later, Tompkins is the first openly gay president in the 49-year history of the Furman Student Government Association.
“I don’t want that to be the only thing I’m remembered (for) as president, but I’m very proud to have that identity and represent that group,” Tompkins said. “So much of having a good experience in college is having that feeling of belonging that I’ve luckily been able to have — but a lot of people don’t unless they find their communities.”
Tompkins knew that firsthand after a high school experience he described as less than ideal. Searching for community, he discovered Professor of Philosophy Sarah Worth’s Philosophy 101 course. Worth became Tompkins’ advisor, mentor and confidant.
“I was raised very conservatively,” Tompkins said. “When I took that class, my mind was just kind of blown thinking about ways of thinking about what’s right and wrong and about God and classic philosophical things I’d never considered. I left my first day thinking, ‘I’m going to major in this,’ and I declared that semester.”
Student government, meanwhile, is nothing new for Tompkins, who was the student body president of both his middle and high schools.
“Even back in middle school, I’ve always had a big voice, and I like having my voice heard,” he said. “I think I had this realization I could use my voice to help people. I’ve always had a good ability to talk to adults, which was helpful especially in middle school and high school.”
Tompkins served as class president his sophomore year at Furman, spearheading an effort to set hammock poles up around campus. But being elected SGA president was a special thrill and one he didn’t count on until the votes were tallied.
“I always get very nervous during the campaign season because I’m never 100 percent sure, but I’m also very competitive, so I had to tell myself I was going to win or I don’t think I would have tried hard enough,” he said. “My slogan was, ‘Say yessy to Jesse,’ which is kind of cheesy, but it worked, I think.”
As for his goals, Tompkins said he plans to conduct a student survey to help shape his priorities. Even before gathering his classmates’ ideas, however, he knows he’d like to empower everyone on student government to pursue personal projects.
“Our SGA gets caught up with this idea that our only job is to allocate money for new clubs and manage budgets of clubs,” Tompkins said. “One of my goals is to make jobs on council more purposeful, because I think people come in very passionate and then the job descriptions don’t give them much to work with.”
Another objective is streamlining and improving the campus transportation system.
“Right now, it’s scattered among different organizations … We’re looking to make it more sustainable and more accessible, too, because I think the campus shuttle service right now is not accessible to all students,” he said, referring to wheelchair accessibility. “So that’s something I would like to see changed.”
A Hollingsworth Scholar, Tompkins spent the summer of 2019 interning in Furman’s Office of Student Involvement and Inclusion while conducting undergraduate research on the “philosophy of taste,” which delves into the pleasure people derive from looking at food they’re not actually eating. His final year as an undergraduate will be focused on completing a philosophy degree and leading the SGA.
As for his political career, Tompkins said it won’t extend past graduation.
“My passion is higher ed administration,” he said. “I want to provide students with a sense of belonging, because I’ve felt that so much at Furman.”