Vala in the house

Vala Zeinali in a suit as a child in Iran.

Dylan Reynolds

Vala Zeinali is unafraid.

The computer science and applied mathematics major is unafraid to set bold goals for himself, like someday making it big on Wall Street. He’s unafraid to make bold statements like, “everything I do is game theory.” And he’s unafraid to try bold things, like running for Undergraduate Student Government president in just his second year on campus — and then winning the election.

It’s part of his worldview, where hard work produces big results, logic and math can always be trusted and leadership should be approached objectively.

“I literally don’t believe in anything,” Zeinali said casually, sitting in the Undergraduate Student Government office where he will serve as USG president for the next year. “I’m not racist, I’m not homophobic, I’m not religious, I’m not political. I’m just 100% neutral. I don’t pick any sides, and that’s something very very important for the student body president.”

Students may recognize Zeinali as the long-haired guy whose campaign poster was plastered all over campus earlier this semester with the catchy “It’s EZ vote VZ!” slogan, or as a member of the university’s presidential search committee, or as USG’s director of business and finance these past two semesters.

He recognizes himself as a hard worker in pursuit of the American dream, as a math and science lover who looks up to Elon Musk as a role model and as an advocate for every student at Kent State.

And Wednesday evening in the Student Center’s governance chambers, this year’s president Thomas “Tommy” Watral passed Zeinali the wooden gavel, symbolically recognizing him as the new leader of USG.

“I’m really excited for him because there are just some stellar people on his board, and from what I’ve seen, they really respect him and are excited to see him lead,” Watral said. “He has a vision for Kent State, and that’s something that you really need if you’re going to be in this position.”

Wednesday’s meeting, the first for the new USG administration, was the moment the hours of campaigning and the election victory finally became real for Zeinali and the students he will be working with for the next year.

The campaign

“You should’ve seen the days when I didn’t eat, didn’t sleep, didn’t shower, because all I was doing was campaigning,” Zeinali said.

He loves talking about hard work and persistence, and that’s what he attributes his quick rise in USG to. Last year, when Zeinali was still a freshman, he ran for director of business and finance and won.

“It’s very uncommon for freshmen to run for a director position,” he said. “And I won. I proved the haters wrong, and persistence beats everything. Hard work and persistence.”

Hard work, persistence and innovation. Part of the reason he won that election was his creation of QR codes that simplified the voting process, taking students directly to the final step to vote. Previously, voting in USG elections required students to go through a several-step online process, but Zeinali’s idea made it faster to vote for candidates: ideally, him. He brought out the QR codes again for this year’s presidential election, campaigned hard and once again was victorious.

“For me to be able to live my life knowing that I lost, if I lost, I would have to have tried my absolute hardest,” Zeinali said. “And if I lost, I would be okay with that, because I knew that I literally almost passed out walking in a suit on my way to class because I just wanted it.”

He said he has wanted to be president since his first day at Kent State, having regretted not trying student council in high school. When that goal was finally in reach, he knew he couldn’t let it slip away. Zeinali credits his parents with giving him the drive to succeed in life. A family of Iranian immigrants, their journey to success in America showed him the benefits that can come from hard work in the face of adversity.

Fishing and adapting

When Zeinali was a little kid, he became fascinated with the goldfish bowl his mother kept at their home in Tehran, Iran.

“I was dipping my hands in the bowl, and I was trying to catch these fish with my hand,” he said. “And so my mom realized I liked fish a lot, because I kept trying to touch them for hours.”

To keep him occupied, she filled the bathtub with water, put some goldfish in it and gave him a net to try to catch them. Zeinali loved it. By the time he was 3, he had his first proper fishing rod and caught his first fish in the wild.

But at the same time, Zeinali’s parents became discontent with life in Iran and sought to move to the United States. He thought they were moving so he could fish in a new country, but really they disagreed with the direction the government was going and wanted out.

Coming to America proved challenging. When the family arrived in the Cleveland area, his mother found work in a rug store, but his father was unable to practice medicine without retaking certain exams. For his part, Zeinali tried to assimilate into American culture, pushing away his roots in favor of American customs. He struggled to learn English until it eventually became more natural around fifth or sixth grade. He just wanted to be American. American and cool.

“I was just rebellious toward my culture, trying to put it aside to be liked,” he said. “It worked, because that’s all I cared about. I’ve had this, even now, it’s carried over. When I want something, I literally put everything into it. It’s kind of like OCD, in a way.”

Zeinali eventually lowered his cultural rebellion and made peace with his roots, his father got licenced as a cardiovascular surgeon in America and his mother became a certified public accountant, but the road was long and difficult enough that the family considered moving back to Iran.

Zeinali still fishes, both to release pressure and for sport. He’s even fished competitively with the Kent State Bass Fishing Club, where competition wins can mean money prizes. For that reason, he rarely eats fish, superstitiously believing that could somehow hurt his chances of catching anything.

“I was born to do it; it was a natural calling, he said. “It’s my stress reliever. On top of all the stuff I do, it’s my escape.”

The game plan

Zeinali’s face lit up when he started talking about the future. Leaning forward, he described his “game plan” for life: “Goal: get into a top-five Ph.D. program. Do cutting-edge research in artificial intelligence. Then go work on Wall Street for hedge funds and stuff like that, high finance. And basically ball out there.”

If that doesn’t work out, he said nonchalantly, he can fall back on going to NASA and trying to become an astronaut. The quiet confidence with which he explained his plans showed a genuine belief that if he works hard enough, they are all likely to happen. The end goal of these lofty plans is not to get rich for personal glory, but to enrich the lives of others.

“With money I think you can do anything you want, but … I believe you can do a lot of good things with money,” he said. “I’m going to obviously do philanthropy, start probably a nonprofit after. Don’t know exactly what, but that’s not an issue right now because I don’t have the money.”

What he does have now, though, is a year as the president and a real opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Kent State students.

USG president Vala Zeinali

For Zeinali, making a difference starts with what he knows best: math and science. He said he’s developing software USG can use to gather feedback from students and determine what they want, whether it’s for booking FlashFest performers or other financial decisions. He said this software is important because USG funding comes from student fees.

“We shouldn’t just choose for ourselves or whatever’s more convenient,” he said. “We’re going to fight for what you want, and I think that’s really something we need to do.”

Watral called Zeinali a “math genius” and said he expects him to handle the budget well given his experience as director of business and finance.

“I think he’s going to really thrive with the money side of USG,” Watral said.

Also in the spirit of serving the students, Zeinali vowed to make it easier to see what USG is up to.

“I think that we need to be a little bit more transparent with our legislation, because last year — this year technically — no legislation has been posted, which is kind of a big yikes,” Zeinali said. The most recent legislation students can view on USG’s website was passed in February 2018 and the page for the 2018-2019 meeting minutes is labeled “coming soon.”

Another pillar of Zeinali’s agenda is to increase diversity in student government. He used a math metaphor to explain his thoughts.

“I realized that you have a population and you have a sample. Our population is the student body. Our sample is student government. If you look at this year’s USG, can you say that our sample represents our population?” he asked. “It doesn’t. It’s very skewed one way. In order for us to be able to actually represent our student body, we need to have our distribution in student government represent the distribution of our student body.”

By that, he meant diversity broadly. Racial and ethnic diversity is a big part of it, and next year’s USG will include significantly more non-white and non-American students who Zeinali encouraged to run. But he also meant diversity of thought, political opinions and life experience. And also Greek life affiliation.

Zeinali said students involved with Greek life are disproportionately elected to student government positions because of a cycle effect, where they see their peers win office and are motivated to run for office themselves. He would like to see the same effect with students of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

“There’s people in our student body that don’t know anything about student government because they don’t fit the demographic of student government,” he said. “There’s a reason why every single person that’s in Greek life knows student government.”

“Do you like math?”

Back in the USG office, it was FlashFest day. Zeinali sat by the phone, periodically taking calls from students interested in buying tickets to see Soulja Boy and Young Thug perform on that mild April night. Sitting beside him was Claire Weihe: then-senator for the College of Public Health, collaborator on the Period Project, candidate for next year’s USG chief of staff and his girlfriend.

The two met through USG and have worked together there, most notably on the Period Project, an initiative to offer free menstrual products on campus.

“He does the math and finances because that’s what he’s good at, and I do the women’s health and advocacy behind it,” Weihe said. She recently co-organized a documentary screening and panel discussion to promote the Period Project and general accessibility of menstrual products.

The chief of staff position Weihe had applied for is appointed by the president and confirmed by USG’s voting members. The chief of staff is responsible for a variety of administrative duties and works closely with the president. She acknowledged the potential conflict of interest.

“When I’m in USG, Vala and I are separate people,” she said. “He’s my coworker, it’s not … I think we work well as a team. It’s good work ethic together that just makes stuff get done. Obviously, there’s bias in everything, so I can’t say there won’t be bias.”

Zeinali said the two work well together because he is more of an analytical thinker while Weihe is more of an emotional thinker. They’re like the left and right sides of the brain, each making up for what the other side lacks.

“Do you like math?” he asked suddenly. “Say I’m four-tenths, and I need to find the six-tenths. Claire is the six-tenths. It just fits.”

Weihe laughed. “That was the most Vala thing. He starts with, ‘Do you like math?’ Vala has made me like math, which is incredible.”

Transition of power

Wednesday evening in the Student Center governance chambers, Zeinali pounded the president’s gavel on the long wooden desk where Watral and the outgoing administration had been seated minutes before.

“I call this meeting to order at 5:40 p.m.,” he announced. This was an important meeting. Not only was it the first meeting held by the new elected USG leaders, but it was also the meeting where the nominees for positions appointed by the president would be confirmed by the group’s voting members.

For the most part, it was a smooth process. Members raised metal placards to approve, deny or abstain from voting on appointments, and there was little objection to Zeinali’s choices for the positions. Then it came time for the chief of staff appointment.

After Zeinali introduced Weihe as the appointee for chief of staff, outgoing Sen. Kevin Cline stood and presented a letter signed by six outgoing USG senators and directors arguing that Weihe’s relationship with Zeinali presented a conflict of interest in a professional environment.

After several USG members argued for and against the appointment, Weihe was given the opportunity to speak in defense. She said both her and Zeinali put Kent State students before anything else, and her desire to be chief of staff existed before their relationship.

“I am totally understanding that this is a conflict of interest,” she said. “But I will say that, Vala and I, back in December when he told me when he was running for president, way before we started our relationship, I said, ‘I would love to be your chief.’”

Sen. Steven Farhat requested the vote be taken by paper ballot because of the personal nature of the issue. Several people seconded the motion and paper was distributed. Amid the tension of the vote, outgoing USG members broke into a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for Watral, who was celebrating his 22nd birthday. When the ballots were collected and counted, it was a clear victory for Weihe and Zeinali — 15 in favor of confirmation, six opposed and two abstentions.

“You heard it. Motion is carried,” Zeinali said, and Weihe left the visitors’ gallery to take her seat at the table.

After the rest of the appointed members were confirmed, Zeinali set the tone for his presidency with a short but very Vala-esque speech. He encouraged the new leaders, telling them they are in their positions because someone saw potential in them and because they care about the students of Kent State. But he cautioned them about making decisions based on emotion rather than logic.

Then he relaxed a little.

“I promise you this will be the most intense meeting of the entire year,” he said. “I’m a pretty laid-back dude.”

Dylan Reynolds is engagement editor. Contact him at [email protected].