Home Feature From Beach Cleanups to the White House: How Richard Steiner-Otoo is Leaving His Mark as a Public Servant

From Beach Cleanups to the White House: How Richard Steiner-Otoo is Leaving His Mark as a Public Servant

by Sal DiMaggio

If you have walked around the campus of Montclair State University, chances are you have heard of Richard Steiner-Otoo. Whether as president of the Student Government Association (SGA) or in one of his many other roles on campus, the senior geographic, environmental and urban studies student has maintained an active presence on campus since his freshman year.

“I feel like I’m a very outgoing person,” Steiner-Otoo said. “And I feel like that’s part of the reason why I’m here. I’ve always tried my best to connect with as many people on campus.”

Steiner-Otoo was elected to his first term as SGA president in the spring of 2022, and was re-elected the following year. He wears many different hats on campus as a brother of Phi Delta Theta, a member of the student activities office in the Center for Student Involvement (CSI) and a campus tour guide.

Richard Steiner-Otoo has been the president of the Student Government Association since fall 2022.
Karsten Englander | The Montclarion

Richard Steiner-Otoo has been the president of the Student Government Association since fall 2022.
Karsten Englander | The Montclarion

Steiner-Otoo’s many roles all stem from his drive to make change. His public service story began in Ghana, where his parents emigrated from. He attended high school for two years there at Association International School, where he led the school’s environmental club in a beach clean up.

Steiner-Otoo worked with non-profit and non-governmental organizations, as well as his school and fellow classmates, to organize the event. This opportunity gave him his first taste at making an impact.

“That made me realize that obviously the environment is something that I’m very passionate about, but being able to help my community was something [greater],” Steiner-Otoo said.

That passion would continue when Steiner-Otoo came to Montclair State. One of the first people that saw this was Casey Coleman, the assistant director of student involvement at the CSI.

Coleman’s first impression of Steiner-Otoo was formed on the first day of classes in the fall of 2020, when the then-freshman called the office to ask if any jobs were being offered. Surprised and impressed, Coleman invited Steiner-Otoo to an interview, where the future SGA president did not disappoint.

“In the very first five minutes, I was just blown away at his poise and demeanor and just how he carried himself and [how] determined [he was], and so we ended up offering him a position,” Coleman said.

During his freshman year, Steiner-Otoo also became a legislator in the SGA and helped to change university policies surrounding the return from the COVID-19 pandemic to Residence Life policies and food availability.

“People were just having a lot of issues [with] different COVID protocols, and things that many university administrators weren’t even aware of,” Steiner-Otoo said. So, that’s just where I came into play and [advocated] for that.”

Steiner-Otoo was also the chair of the appropriations committee during his freshman year, and then became the attorney general of the SGA his sophomore year. During that time, he learned about the internal processes of the SGA.

It was also during Steiner-Otoo’s sophomore year that he decided to run for SGA president. Using his experiences as a student and a member of the SGA for almost two years, he wanted the organization to be a key player in serving students.

And after Steiner-Otoo won his election, he has made sure to do just that. One recent initiative that he worked on was ensuring that resident students who stayed on campus during winter break had access to food through meal vouchers.

“Seeing the absolute need that students had was a little bit heartbreaking, but it was amazing to be able to help students and I think that that’s what really drives [me],” Steiner-Otoo said. “People could have meals on their table during break. And it was many people who did not have a home, many people who are homeless, many people who are independent students. That was really impactful for me as well.”

Steiner-Otoo has been able to put his desire to help others to use outside of Montclair State as well. This past summer, he got an opportunity of a lifetime interning at the White House.

Finding the opportunity was easier than one might think.

“I quite literally was like, ‘I want to work in politics,’” Steiner-Otoo said. “Where is politics?: The White House. I googled White House, I got amazing letters of recommendation from university members, and it was as simple as applying.”

Days after being interviewed for the role, Steiner-Otoo found out he had gotten the job.

“It was my environmental law class, and I’m sitting there and I got the email that was like, ‘Congratulations. You’ve been accepted,’” Steiner-Otoo said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, nobody in this class knows that I’ve gotten this.’ It was surreal.”

During the internship, Steiner-Otoo worked in the Office of Public Engagement, described as the ‘front door’ of the White House. There, he helped White House staff connect the public to the president and other important figures.

Richard Steiner-Otoo and his fellow interns at the Office of Public Engagement standing outside of the White House. 
Photo courtesy of Richard Steiner-Otoo

Richard Steiner-Otoo and his fellow interns at the Office of Public Engagement standing outside of the White House.
Photo courtesy of Richard Steiner-Otoo

At one point during his internship, Steiner-Otoo was able to see the White House work with members of the disabled community. Experiences like those are what defined his time at the White House.

“It was really amazing to see that unfold, because that’s another marginalized community in America who necessarily has not always had a seat at the table,” Steiner-Otoo said.

Steiner-Otoo especially felt personally connected to the work he did during the White House’s Juneteenth celebration. He recalled it as his “favorite memory from the entire internship.”

“That was an amazing opportunity because it really showed how diverse the administration was, which I really appreciate because it is such a diverse staff, it generally looks like America today,” Steiner-Otoo said. “But it also shows the values of us as a nation, our priorities to take a moment to celebrate something like this.”

Along with an experience he will never forget, Steiner-Otoo gained valuable leadership skills to take back home with him to Montclair State, stating that the internship “taught [him] so much.”

Richard Steiner-Otoo and his fellow interns at the Office of Public Engagement in the White House Briefing Room. 
Photo courtesy of Richard Steiner-Otoo

Richard Steiner-Otoo and his fellow interns at the Office of Public Engagement sitting in the White House Briefing Room.
Photo courtesy of Richard Steiner-Otoo

“I soaked up so much information this past summer, [in] every single way,” Steiner-Otoo said. “Management [and] how to utilize resources. Communication is an amazing aspect.”

Steiner-Otoo has been able to put those skills to good use as SGA president. He took the management and organizational styles he learned and now uses them when communicating with people inside of the SGA as well as external parties.

Lindsey Shornock, a senior linguistics major, managed Steiner-Otoo’s campaign in both 2022 and 2023. She described how she has been able to see Steiner-Otoo take the time to connect with students, specifically when it comes to dealing with registered student organizations (RSOs).

“He definitely prioritizes them being heard and their money, and he goes to their events to just show his face [and] see what’s going on,” Shornock said. “When a new organization is trying to become a thing, he wants to meet them and [discuss] their goals and what they want.”

Coleman emphasized how Steiner-Otoo has made the effort to improve dialogue between different parties within Montclair State.

“I think sometimes there’s this feeling [from the university] of ‘Well, they don’t want us to succeed,’ or there’s this tension,” Coleman said. “And I think [Steiner-Otoo] is someone who’s come in and said, ‘No, they really want us to succeed.’ It’s just sometimes understanding why certain things are a certain way.”

In addition to serving as president of the Student Government Association, Richard Steiner-Otoo was also an intern at the White House in the summer of 2023.
Karsten Englander | The Montclarion

In addition to serving as president of the Student Government Association, Richard Steiner-Otoo was also an intern at the White House in the summer of 2023.
Karsten Englander | The Montclarion

Steiner-Otoo noted how the town halls that have popped up over the past few months have a direct impact from his time at the White House.

“I think that in terms of how important the feedback is, that is huge,” Steiner-Otoo said. “Because I feel in that role, we took in so much information and pumped it out. It’s the same thing: we want to be able to take it in and pump it out to the university.”

Steiner-Otoo hopes that students who see him around campus are inspired to make change themselves and seize opportunities when they appear.

“I’ve had a lot of freshmen come up to me and be like, ‘How do I get involved this year?” Steiner-Otoo said. “‘How do I get that internship or how do I get involved?’”

The answer?

“It starts now,” Steiner-Otoo said. “The best time to be involved was yesterday. The second best time is right now.”

After he leaves Montclair State, Steiner-Otoo hopes to one day continue his journey as a public servant, specifically in urban development and environmental justice. For now, however, he is fine with wherever the universe will take him.

“I’m at ease not knowing for the first time in my life, because I feel like I always have something brewing,” Steiner-Otoo said. “Whether it’s my next internship, my next job or my next position, this is the first time I don’t know and I’m in love with it.”

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