Curtis Cohen, pictured in his office, is president of the Associated Students of Washington State University. (Photo courtesy of Curtis Cohen)

Finance Major Curtis Cohen Leads as ASWSU President during COVID‑19

By Becky Kramer

When Curtis Cohen encounters a challenge, he draws on lessons from a Seattle-to-San Francisco bike trip he took a few years ago.

“Reaching the Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t going to happen in a couple of days,” says Cohen, a Carson College of Business finance major from Mukilteo, Washington. “But each rotation of the pedals added up. By the end of the day, I’d be 80 to 90 miles closer to my goal.”

Cohen is channeling that philosophy as the president of the Associated Students of Washington State University for the 2020–2021 academic year. He was elected March 11—the same day WSU announced classes were moving online after spring break. The pandemic and his ASWSU presidency have overlapped in ways he never imagined when he ran for office.

“It’s been a challenge—not only working remotely but finding ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among students in Pullman,” Cohen says. “We’re trying to keep that Cougar sense of community even though everything is online.”

Small steps add up, Cohen tells fellow students. Whether it’s wearing a mask and social distancing, or getting involved virtually in campus clubs, students can take action to stay healthy and build a successful college career.

“Every generation has moments of adversity. This is one of ours,” he says. “I want to look back and see how I used it as an opportunity for learning.”

Leading in a visible way during COVID-19

After Cohen graduates in May, his goal is to work as a financial consultant for a multinational company. Meanwhile, the pandemic has thrust him into the spotlight.

When Governor Jay Inslee was in Pullman to talk about a rapid rise in COVID-19 rates in the community, Cohen was part of the small group of administrators and students who met with the governor. He spoke at WSU President Kirk Schulz’s September 10 town hall meeting, and he’s given a number of interviews to media outlets.

“There is a lot of attention on higher education right now because of COVID-19,” said Jill Creighton, dean of students and associate vice president for student life. “Curtis gets to lead in a very visible way that will be distinct from any previous ASWSU president.”

Cohen, 21, credits his business classes for preparing him to be student body president, which requires about 20 hours of his time each week. His coursework gave him confidence in managing people and budgets, working in teams, delegating, and communicating effectively.

“When the governor was here, I was a bit nervous at first,” Cohen says. “When he was talking to me, it was almost like watching a press conference on TV. Then I realized he was here because he wanted to listen to a student. Everyone at the table was part of the team.”

Cohen told Inslee that he’s forming a committee of leaders from WSU’s student organizations with Sean Doster, ASWSU’s vice president.

“We want to create a platform for campus leaders to not just talk about COVID, but to focus on mitigating it,” Cohen says. “We want to make sure we’re holding each other accountable. We can advertise resources and testing, and of course, promote social distancing.”

For Cohen, the chance to get involved in student leadership helped draw him to WSU. He was an ASWSU senator during his sophomore year, and he also has held leadership roles at his social fraternity and the business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi.

Cohen brings maturity and confidence to his ASWSU role, says Brian Shuffield, the University’s executive director of student involvement, who advises the student government’s executive staff.

“He’s definitely listening to what’s going on and trying to understand what the true needs of students are during COVID-19,” Shuffield says. Despite the challenges associated with the pandemic, “it’s a pretty amazing opportunity for him.”

This year’s ASWSU leaders have “a real chance to make a difference in the lives of their peers,” Creighton says. “They’re forging new ground to find ways students can get engaged while not physically present.”