Thomas Wehby and Jack Palen met as toddlers when their mothers brought them along to the older sisters’ Daisy Girl Scouts meetings.
Their friendship continued from kindergarten through eighth grade at Holy Rosary Academy. In high school, they remained friends even as their paths diverged; Thomas went to Father Ryan High School and Jack to Pope John Paul II High School, both graduating in 2017.
In college, they have followed parallel paths. Both are finishing their junior years at Jesuit universities – Thomas at Xavier University in Cincinnati and Jack at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Both are looking to law school after graduating, and both have embraced the social justice ethos they learned at Holy Rosary, in high school, and in college.
They also have both been elected president of their respective student bodies.
“What are the chances two Tennessee, Diocese of Nashville boys would be elected their student body presidents from opposite ends of the country,” Wehby said.
“Thomas and I live and grew up within a mile of each other here in Mt. Juliet,” Palen said. “He’s a go-getter, a natural leader. … It’s no surprise to me that Thomas is taking on a leadership role like this.”
Wehby was elected last December and is already halfway through his term as the president of the Student Government Association at Xavier. Palen was elected April 3 and his term as president of Associated Students of LMU will follow the 2020-21 academic year.
Because the LMU campus was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Palen was elected in the school’s first-ever all-virtual election. He was home in Mt. Juliet when he was elected.
“It was crazy,” he said. “We were all forced off campus in a two-week timeframe.”
He moved to digital campaigning for the final two weeks of the election while also taking classes online. “Between campaigning and classes, I spent all day in front of a computer.”
“We had a great platform that spoke to a lot of students, and our communication was good because we used Facebook, Instagram and our own website,” Palen said. “We got a great response from the community. Our Instagram had so many followers, they blocked it because they thought it was spam.”
“Part of me wishes we were campaigning in person, but you do what you got to do in desperate times,” Palen said.
He and his vice president, Elsie Mares, who ran as a ticket, finally won the tight race over two other tickets in a run-off.
After celebrating the win with his mom, Melinda, “the first person I called was Betty Mayberry,” one of his former teachers at JPII, Palen said. “She was my mentor.”
“At JPII I had amazing mentors,” Palen said. “I’ve found the same thing at LMU.”
“At both JPII and LMU it is the faculty that really pushes every student to be the best that they can be,” Palen said.
Palen’s interest in politics and government was nurtured at JPII, where he was involved in Model UN and helped start a political discourse group. Model UN “is something I still do at LMU,” Palen said. “I love Model UN.”
The Young Politicos Group at JPII brought together a diverse group of students to discuss issues facing the country, Palen said. “That was a great experience.”
“JPII exposed me to a lot of social justice and political issues that made me more conscious of what was going on,” Palen said.
Wehby had a similar experience at Father Ryan, where he was the senior class president and involved in the theater program.
“I kind of discovered a vocation my junior, senior year, through a wonderful teacher, Brent Fernandez, who was my theology and philosophy teacher,” said Wehby, a third-generation Ryan graduate. “Through his class, I learned of the beauty of serving my fellow man.”
At his Jesuit university, Wehby has found a similar focus on social justice and involvement. “It was that similar thought process of get out there and make some change, which is really core to the Jesuit values,” he said.
Wehby and Palen were both drawn to the Jesuit approach to education. “I think it’s the idea of having a well-rounded education. You can’t just focus on one thing,” Wehby said. Students are required to take classes across a variety of disciplines “and see how they connect.”
Although the Xavier campus is closed, Wehby’s work as student body president goes on.
“I’ve been staying in my off campus apartment taking classes and meeting with the vice provost to have conversations about issues students were concerned about,” Wehby said, such as the status of the university’s contract workers and the move to a pass/fail grading system during the pandemic.
He is still leading weekly meetings of the student senate using the Zoom video conferencing platform. The meetings are open to all interested students.
“We need to keep doing things normally,” Wehby said. “We were elected by the students to do stuff. It’s not right to neglect that.”
Palen and his vice president have been busy interviewing students for positions in their cabinet and leadership team. “We’re getting a lot of applications, which has me really excited.”
He also will be reaching out to his friend for some advice. “It’s super exciting to work with Thomas,” Palen said. “He and his VP along with me and my VP are scheduling a call to go over … a taste of their experience.”
They will have more chances to work together as part of the Jesuit Student Government Alliance, which brings together the student body presidents of the 27 member institutions of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities to discuss best practices, campus initiatives, and voice the opinion of their collective, Jesuit student bodies.
Palen, an international relations major with minors in French and economics, and Wehby, a political science and theater major with a minor in political thought through the school’s Philosophy Department, are both eyeing law school after graduation.
During his sophomore year at LMU, Palen served on the school’s student Judicial Board hearing cases on funding appeals and other issues. “I’m looking at law school in the future, so that was right up my alley,” he said.
“I love it,” Wehby said of being student body president. “It’s interesting. It’s not exactly what I thought it would be, but it’s even more than I thought it would be. I get to have the conversations that matter.”