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Perspectives on the Heights: Setti Warren

05/09/13
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By Reid Oslin | Chronicle Staff

Published: May 9, 2013

Newton Mayor Setti Warren ’93 has always been a natural leader. He was a four-time class president at Newton North High School, and as a junior, asked to help bring racial and ethnic harmony to the school after a clash between rival groups. A history major at Boston College, Warren became the second African-American to be elected president of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) in the school’s history.

Since graduation, Warren has had an impeccable career in the government and public sector: special assistant in the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs for President Clinton; New England director of FEMA; deputy state director for US Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.); and naval intelligence officer in Iraq.

While serving in the Iraq war zone, Warren announced his candidacy for mayor of Newton. He returned home and was elected to the city’s top post on Nov. 3, 2009.

Recently, he took a few moments out of his busy schedule to share his memories of Boston College with Chronicle correspondent Reid Oslin.

What made you decide to attend Boston College?

BC has been a part of my life since my childhood, not just because of the physical location but because I was part of the BC community even as a young person, going to sporting events. I remember going to basketball games in the old Roberts Center and watching BC football games in Alumni Stadium. There were friends of our family who were associated with Boston College.

I am a Catholic, too, and I really felt great about the Jesuit tradition and being a part of that during my formative years in college. Some of the [BC] students had actually been mentors and tutors to me in my junior and senior years at Newton North High, and I remember visiting the campus for that as well. All of those factors made me apply, and when I was accepted, I was very excited to be a part of the Boston College tradition. Overall, it was just a great fit.

What was BC like for you in the early 1990s?

I loved every part of Boston College. It was an exciting time to be on the campus. I loved the faculty. I was very much involved in student government when I was there. I learned so much in that experience. The population of Boston College was changing through the AHANA program and other student programs. So, getting involved in student government and playing a leadership role was an extraordinary experience for me.

How would you lead a student body that was from all different backgrounds? You would be leading a student body that would be coming together to make decisions that benefit an entire community. These are things that I learned through UGBC. It was an incredible experience. BC provided me with a great foundation for my future and my career in government and public service.

You mentioned the faculty. Does any teacher stand out in your memory?

One person who I clearly recall was one of my toughest professors, [Professor of Political Science] Donald Hafner. He made a huge impression on me. He taught a course in international politics and was really able to bring the world, and what was happening internationally, right into the classroom. He was one of my toughest professors, but he challenged us to think about what was going on beyond our own borders and how it related to what was happening within our borders. He was terrific. He had real-0world experience, as a member of the Carter Administration, as I recall.

What was your on-campus experience like in those days?

I lived on campus all four years — it was my home away from home [laughter]. I was in Claver Hall during my freshman year; I was also on Upper Campus as a sophomore, living in Welch Hall on College Road; in junior year I was in Voute Hall on Commonwealth Avenue; and senior year I was in Hillsides.

I remember a lot of school spirit in those days. A lot of the sports teams were great — wasn’t Glenn Foley the quarterback then? But you could tell that the University was in the midst of a great transition back then, too. You could feel the transformation on the campus and you could feel it in the student body. There was diversity within the student body and lots of discussion about what was happening in the politics of the day, and how they were woven into events on campus. It was an exciting time and I learned a lot. I helped to put on many lectures and forums on campus with different viewpoints.

One thing that really stood out for me was the leadership of [University President J. Donald Monan, SJ]. I loved Fr. Monan. I appreciated my discussions with him and I appreciated his understanding of that moment in time at the University and how the school was transforming and getting a national and, really, international flavor. With Fr. Monan’s leadership we were brought into that era. His leadership was a standout for me. I love Fr. Leahy as well, but he wasn’t my president when I was a student [laughter].

What part of your Boston College experience stays with you today?

I bleed maroon and gold. Service to others is a tradition at Boston College that I really learned through my college years and through my service in student government. This had a huge impact on me and it continues. When I think about why I am here and what my mission is, I think of those values that I learned back at Boston College. They will always be a part of what I do. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to go to school there and really become a part of the Boston College family. I just love the place — what else can I say?