TAMPA - He had been rejected by 14 of his 16 target schools. One of the takers was in New York, where he didn't really want to go. And the University of South Florida deferred him to its St. Petersburg campus. Mark Lombardi-Nelson was not impressed. "In my eyes, it told me as a 17-year-old coming into college, 'You're not good enough to go to Tampa. You're going to have to go to St. Pete.'" His attitude would, of course, change. On his first visit to campus.
"I loved everything about it. I loved the atmosphere. The inclusiveness. The opportunity," he said. A mentor showed him around. "At the end of the day I told him, 'Someday I'm going to run this place.'" True to his word, Lombardi-Nelson was eventually elected student body president -- twice. And last week, he took a seat at the table of the USF Board of Trustees, the first student member of that panel not from the main campus in Tampa since the board was created in 2001. "I am so excited," he said before Thursday's trustees meeting, which was held in the student center on his home campus. "I'm pumped. It's so exhilarating to be able to have this opportunity." Of the 13 members of the Board of Trustees, six are appointed by the governor, and five are appointed by the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system. There is one faculty member and one student member. That student member has traditionally been the student body president of USF's Tampa campus. But in 2011, the student governments from the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses formed the Student Advisory Council, with representatives from all three campuses serving. The Council would elect one of the three student body presidents to the Board of Trustees. And this year, Lombardi-Nelson won the job. "He seems to have the experience to do a decent job," said Todd Hughes, student body president at the Sarasota-Manatee campus. "I think that probably was a factor on him being elected. He's been around, and he knows what's going on." Interim Chancellor Bill Hogarth lauded Lombardi-Nelson's ability to work with others. "He would ask for help, and ask, 'Hey, how do we do things better,' and ask for suggestions or recommendations," Hogarth said. "He just seemed to have a lot of good ideas, and a lot of energy to make things better so people would really enjoy their time here." Lombardi was raised in Spring Hill, in the middle of seven brothers and sisters with parents who never graduated from high school. He figured a college education would be his ticket out of small-town Florida. "The solution presented was that you can go to college," he said. And with his change in attitude over USF St. Petersburg came his political calling -- he served as student body vice president his sophomore year, was elected president in 2012 and again this spring. He's in the highly-touted entrepreneurship program at the school and plans to head to Brazil after graduation to establish some sort of startup amid that country's booming economy. He may be "pumped" and "excited," but the Board of Trustees' duties are typically tedious exercises in university finance and policy. Lombardi-Nelson said Gov. Rick Scott has made it pretty clear that tuition is likely to remain flat, and he recognizes the priorities of each campus being the completion of the heart institute in Tampa, construction of the business school in St. Petersburg, and residence halls, freshman life and academic programs at Sarasota-Manatee. His goal as a trustee is simple: "I want to be the best student trustee that ever was," he said. "That doesn't mean you look out for St. Petersburg because I'm a St. Pete student. It doesn't mean I cater to Tampa. It means I act as a representative of the system, and I take everything into consideration." And he's still pumped and excited. "From where I started to sitting on the Board of Trustees that has a $3.2 billion impact in the Tampa Bay area, my mind is blown," he said. "It's amazing. I can't stop smiling about it. It doesn't seem real." [email protected] (813) 259-7834