Junior Tori Schafer defines herself and empowers others

Schafer: “I’m a firm believer that your biggest loss is the start of your comeback story, so I'm looking forward to writing my comeback story."

Junior Tori Schafer, former MSA vice president, is moving on from her loss in this year's MSA presidential election by working on campus initiatives, such as It's On Us. During her time as vice president, her favorite place on campus was Leadership Auditorium, inside the Student Center.

In a March 2017 student government election that many observers thought mirrored the 2016 U.S. presidential election, presidential candidate Tori Schafer was compared to Hillary Clinton. For “being a part of the establishment.” For supposedly being a Democrat.

For being a woman.

She lost the election, another reason people compared her to Clinton, but Schafer hasn’t halted the progress of her campus initiatives.

She knows how to tackle anything — years of playing football have gotten her used to breaking barriers. And she has the horsepower to move forward — a decade of equestrian experience taught her poise and strength.

A junior political science student, Schafer is no longer searching for her place on campus, but she’s not yet ready to leave MU in the past. She’s rediscovered her roots and is self-aware of who she is.

People can — and repeatedly do — say whatever they believe about her, but Schafer no longer describes herself as others do.

Ohioan-turned-Tiger

Schafer grew up in a Sylvania, Ohio, home with parents of politically opposite mindsets. Her mother, who taught special education and is now a reading intervention specialist, is a Democrat, and her father, who is a barber and owns a small business, is conservative.

“In my family, we didn’t grow up talking about politics; we screamed about politics,” Schafer said. “[My parents] love talking about politics because they want to influence my brothers and I to whatever side they see fit. That really helped me growing up to see both sides of the argument, to see both sides of the decision.”

Schafer and her parents during her senior year of high school. Her father is the one who encourages her to "shoot for the moon" and her mother is the one who "keeps me grounded."Photo courtesy of Tori Schafer

Her father, whom Schafer says encourages her to shoot for the moon, was the driving force in her decision to attend MU and study politics. When she and her two brothers were younger, her father was the one who would play catch with them on the baseball fields near their home.

She also played lacrosse and football, a sport that she played until high school, when she decided to pick up cheerleading as a way to stay close to the sport she loves.

Her mother, whom Schafer says keeps her grounded, was the driving force in her decision to take up horseback riding in kindergarten. Her mother, the first in her family to attend college, also inspired Schafer to stay educated.

One of Schafer’s first experiences riding a horse, in kindergarten.Photo courtesy of Tori Schafer

Schafer delved into theatre in middle school and high school, going to state her junior and senior years. She wrote songs and poems as a kid, and although she never sang them aloud, she said her partners encouraged her to keep writing. She continues to journal nearly every day.

Schafer left her small town in Ohio to attend the University of Missouri, where she knew no one. But the Ohioan-turned-Tiger quickly built a Missouri family.

‘This is the place’

Schafer didn’t even know about MU until a friend’s dad, who was a former Missouri football player, said she should check it out.

Walking past the Columns on a campus tour in spring 2014, Schafer’s father looked over at her and said, “This is the place.”

Three years later, Schafer is one of the most visible students on campus. For that to happen, she would have to find her place and her voice at MU.

“Tori freshman year was more quiet,” said former MSA President Sean Earl, a good friend of Schafer’s since freshman year. “Not too quiet, but she was more in a shell and more observant. I think it’s more of what she does. Quiet at first, analyzing the situation, watching interactions, gauging the environment and then voicing her thoughts or opinions.”

In her first month on campus, Schafer joined the Missouri Students Association, became a programming coordinator for the Residence Halls Association and found her biggest role models and supporters after joining the Alpha Delta Pi sorority. When she arrived on campus for the second time her sophomore year, Schafer got involved in ROTC for a short time.

She truly began honing her voice after campus protests in fall 2015, when she realized she wanted to pursue activism. She continued her involvement in MSA, pursuing initiatives such as an international student flag display, more free textbooks in the form of open educational resources and a library fee that, had it not failed, would have transformed the libraries.

The protests from that fall brought MU into national spotlight, and a tumultuous November 2015 MSA presidential election set up Earl and Schafer to run in a special election the following semester. They knew they were getting into a student government that was struggling.

Haden Gomez and Chris Hanner, the two students who were elected in last November’s election, were pressured to resign the night they were to assume their new roles as president and vice president.

Schafer remembers joking with Earl about running together on an MSA slate as juniors, but the special election gave them the opportunity to run toward the end of their sophomore year.

Earl and Schafer were in the room the night of the resignation in January 2016.

“Sean looks over at me and is like, ‘Are we going to do this?’” Schafer said.

In the ensuing campaign, Schafer told The Maneater, “I think that having the ability to make peace with your voice is a powerful thing.”

Looking back, Schafer still believes that a person’s voice is powerful and critical when having difficult conversations.

“I believe I was speaking to the power of negotiation and being able to change someone's emotions with your words,” Schafer said. “I still agree that it's an incredible gift to have, especially when you're in a leadership [position] where you have to talk about hot button issues.”

Two months after they decided to run, Earl and Schafer were elected. She could now use the voice she’d found while running as student body vice president to help lead a campus with heightened political, racial and cultural tensions.

In the last week of their term, in mid-April, Earl described the growth Schafer had made since freshman year as a leader on campus.

“Now it’s she goes in knowing what she thinks and how she feels and is not afraid to communicate that and represent that,” Earl said.

‘No, you should want to be president’

Schafer had reservations about running for MSA president herself. But by December, because of the support of those around her, she said, she decided to go for it.

“It’s proven that it takes a woman about eight more times to be told she should run for this office position in order for her to run,” Schafer said.

Samantha Franks, who was the original director of the MU It’s On Us campaign to prevent campus sexual assault, has been a mentor to Schafer.

“Every day during the MSA election,” Schafer said, “she’d text me and be like, ‘You’re good enough, you’re amazing, you need to do this, you need to run for it,’ just having more and more people validate me.”

In her last few months in office as vice president, Schafer created a women’s empowerment caucus within MSA. Though the caucus has “died off,” it still played a role in Schafer’s advocacy role.

“It started out kind of as a joke because we were like, ‘Oh, we are the only girls here, infiltrating the boys’ club,’ which is the kind of slogan we’d use,” Schafer said. “When a lot of girls were telling me, ‘I want to be just like you, I want to be vice president of MSA,’ I’m like, ‘No, you should want to be president.’”

The women’s empowerment caucus is an example of the way Schafer helped lead MSA. She focused on elevating the voices of others, even if she didn’t always agree with them.

Some people have said that she’s too similar to Hillary Clinton. Students assumed she was a Democrat. An attempt to remain in the executive branch of MSA for a second year led some students to claim she was “part of the establishment.” Schafer said members at a fraternity house tried explaining the MSA budget — one that she had written — to her.

But those challenges didn’t deter Schafer, nor did the result of the election, which Nathan Willett and Payton Englert won following the largest voter turnout in MSA history.

“I’m a firm believer that your biggest loss is the start of your comeback story, so I'm looking forward to writing my comeback story,” Schafer said.

The morning after the election, Schafer received more than 400 messages, to the point where her phone would repeatedly shut down.

But she didn’t shut down.

Photo by Hanna Yowell

Her running mate, junior Riley de León, praised Schafer’s resilience.

“She always approaches things with the idea that there’s a bigger goal, a bigger vision, there’s a bigger task to achieve,” de León said. “And I think that’s what makes her a leader, what makes her successful.”

‘Women could never really lose’

On a typical day as MSA vice president, Schafer would wake up around 5 or 6 a.m. and go on a walk or run with her yellow lab, Tucker. She’d get work done and then go to class, when she didn’t have other obligations to tackle. She’d drink plain black coffee — because it’s cheaper — and get through midday student government errands. Some days, she’d work at her internship with a lobbying firm. Other days, she’d complete her work shifts at the Student Recreation Complex. After late-night meetings, and eating food at some point, she’d finally go to bed.

While Schafer’s typical day as MSA vice president was a full schedule, she made sure to carve out time for one of her most prominent initiatives — It’s On Us, a sexual assault awareness campaign.

She’s been working on It’s On Us since her sophomore year, when Franks left MU and handed her the reins. Now, post-election, she will continue to lead It’s On Us.

The day after the election, Schafer was back to work. She discussed her broader vision in a letter she wrote to her “fellow Tigers.” She posted the letter to Facebook on Thursday, March 9, the morning after election results were announced. But before she got to her bigger vision, she had to address something else first.

“The fact you associate me [with Hillary Clinton] because of my gender shows how far we have to grow,” Schafer wrote in the post.

The week after the election, Schafer received an anonymous letter. The author of the letter wrote that their granddaughter had been sexually assaulted her freshman year on campus.

“[My granddaughter] had been struggling with depression and we were doing everything we could as a family not living in Columbia. A few weeks ago she stopped calling me every night and I began to worry. I finally received a call with relief and she told me the story of how your post saved her life,” the letter read.

The author wrote that their granddaughter called them the night of Schafer’s electoral loss. The granddaughter was “in tears saying, ‘Women cannot win.’” The following night, the granddaughter overheard Schafer laughing with her friends and discussing her plans for It’s On Us with a group of young men.

“She told me that hearing this made her feel, ‘Like women could never really lose,’” the letter read.

Near the end, the letter said that a full-ride scholarship would be set up in Schafer’s name for “women who have experienced domestic violence.”

Schafer took the letter to heart and read it over and over again. After receiving it, Schafer said she was even more motivated to continue the work of It’s On Us.

Weeks later, she and the It’s On Us committee hosted a “Week of Action,” which ended April 14, when they collaborated with Mizzou Athletics to host a “Teal Out” Mizzou baseball game.

Junior Nolan Gromacki, a pitcher for the Tigers, worked with Schafer to make the game come to fruition. Their work brought them together, and they are now good friends, Gromacki said.

“It’s kind of one of those moments when you meet someone and there’s just that instant intellectual compatibility,” Gromacki said. “She just has this infectious personality that you want to be around her, and you want to be in her life.”

Schafer’s personality and intellect have allowed her to form connections and working relationships with university staff and faculty all across campus. Chris Walters, prevention coordinator for the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center, has worked with Schafer since her sophomore year, when she attended a Green Dot facilitator training. Since then, Walters has served as a mentor for and collaborator on the It’s On Us campaign.

“I think one of the biggest things that I see with Tori is that she is extremely passionate about the subject matter, these issues and wanting to make a difference,” Walters said. “I think one of the things that just impresses me about Tori is her willingness to say, ‘Yeah, that’s a big project, yeah that’s a big goal, but we’re going to see change. We can do this.’”

‘Infiltrating the boy’s club’

Earlier in her college career, Schafer wrote an anonymous blog. Going forward, she will be releasing a public blog this summer, tentatively called “Infiltrating the Boy’s Club,” which will be a collection of stories about female leaders.

The goal of the blog is to empower women, and it will be a learning tool not only for Schafer, but also for other women going through tough times.

Beyond this summer, Schafer is unsure of any specific plans — whether that be graduate school at MU or attending law school elsewhere — but her friends see great potential in her.

“I think she is a really good public speaker, and that is a really, really awesome tool that she’s going to use in the future to motivate a lot of people into action, whether she’s in a local government position, or a national government position, or even just sitting on any sort of board in the future,” said Hanna Yowell, a member of the Schafer/de León campaign and the same ADPi pledge class as Schafer.

Gromacki, too, has high hopes for Schafer.

“Some day, Tori is absolutely going to rule the world, and she is going to achieve a lot,” Gromacki said. “I think the majority of Mizzou knows that, and it’s exciting for me to see what she’s doing and how well she’s doing it and also waiting and seeing what it’s going to turn out and be.”

Changing the world is a theme that runs throughout not only Schafer’s friends, but also strangers around her.

“So many people can see that you will truly change the world, and the smart can see that you already have. I look forward to voting for you on a real ballot one day,” the anonymous scholarship letter reads.

Until then, Schafer is still growing, but on her own terms.

“I used to just take my personal qualities for what everybody else told me they were,” she said. “Now I’m an extremely –– I would say this about myself –– I’m an extremely independent person and I’m extremely goal-oriented, and that goes a lot, whether it’s like involvement or academics or whatever aspect of my life. I know exactly what I want.”

Edited by George Roberson and Katie Rosso | groberson@themaneater.com, krosso@themaneater.com

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