At 100 Days Town Hall, NAFSA Member Thanks President Obama for His Support of International Education

The morning of President Obama’s 100th day in office, I drove 130 miles from Columbia to Arnold, Missouri, a small town at the southwestern edge of suburban St. Louis. The President had chosen Fox High School in Arnold to hold a town-hall style meeting marking his first 100 days in office. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the event and planned to use my time driving there to focus on the question I would ask the President if given the chance. An hour and forty minutes along I-70, however, is a long time to review a 40-second question.

A month ago, I was in Washington, DC at NAFSA’s annual Advocacy Day. Waiting outside Missouri Senator Kit Bond’s offices in the Russell Senate Office Building, a young student ambassador from Russia, Anton Lukyanov, who had accompanied a colleague to Washington, offered a valuable reminder. He stated his surprise at how accessible our government is. His enthusiasm and simple observation jolted me from my complacency. I went into the meetings I had that day with a commitment to honor what is so easy to forget: each of us has the opportunity to be the voice that is heard.

A few miles closer to greater St. Louis, I thought about another meeting with President Obama that was held the first part of this month. The format for that event had also been town-hall style, but it had taken place an ocean away in Turkey. The President talked about the importance of sending U.S. students abroad to learn and to help break down walls between our common humanity. Last year, then-Senator Obama had been a cosponsor of the Simon Study Abroad Act, which shares the goals he spoke to in Turkey. While in Arnold, I hoped I would be able to remind the President of this.

After parking and navigating the security maze that accompanies a Presidential visit, I stood with a small group of Missourians just outside Fox High School. While waiting to go inside, I met Gerard Zachritz. Gerard is the president of Fox High’s student council. He’s an all-American young man with an affable disposition and an eagerness to be involved. My previous experience in college admissions took hold of the conversation and I asked him what his plans were after graduation. He smiled broadly as he told me that after achieving a top audition score, he’s received a full vocal scholarship to Webster University in St. Louis. I asked him if he planned to study abroad. Without missing a beat, Gerard explained that he would go to Vienna.

An hour or so later, I was sitting no more than fifteen feet from the President of the United States as he addressed the nation.

It was encouraging to hear President Obama speak to the importance of maintaining the United States’ global competitiveness in education. He stated:

Children are coming out of high school…ranked lower on math and science scores than many other advanced, industrialized countries. Nations like China and India are starting to turn out more engineers, more scientists… If we aren’t able to compete technologically, we’re not going to be able to compete, because this is a knowledge-based economy.

He also addressed the necessity for our country to continue to promote positive engagement with countries throughout the world, calling it “good strategy.” Both of these messages reinforce the importance of international education and the need to support the global mobility of international students and scholars.

As President Obama spoke, I thought about Anton and Gerard, about how similar and impressive they are, and about the value they’ve placed in coming to understand themselves and their world by stepping outside of what is comfortable and expected.

While I didn’t get to ask my question during the event, I did have the opportunity to shake the President’s hand and to thank him personally, in that brief moment, for his support of international education. I spent the President’s 100th day in office being reminded of the intrinsic value that exists in the work that we do, and the opportunity each of us has to further that work. It was a day spent recognizing the amazing capacity each of us hold for learning, dialogue, humility, greatness, and understanding.

Read a full transcript of President Obama’s remarks.

John Wilkerson is the Coordinator of Study Abroad Programs for the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. He serves as the Public Policy Adviser for NAFSA Region IV, and as member of the Midwest Higher Education Compact Student Access Advisory Committee.