Loyola University Chicago

Civic Engagement and Civil Discourse

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Loyola student discusses civic engagement with Obama after his return home

By Evangeline Politis

“What's been going on since I've been gone?" asked former President Barack Obama to a panel of young adults on Monday, April 24 at the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center. Facing an audience filled with 500 students from Chicago high schools and colleges, Obama spent his first public appearance since leaving the White House investigating what motivates their generation on the issue of civic engagement.

A group of Loyola students attended—each representing different schools and organizations across the University—and senior marketing major Kelsey McClear was invited to be on stage and share her input and experience as an active member of the Loyola community.

She’s had a busy four years, which included serving as a student representative on the Implementation and Steering Committee of Loyola’s five-year strategic plan, “Plan 2020: Building a More Just, Humane, and Sustainable World.” She’s also participated in an Alternative Break Immersion trip to a New York City elementary school and has been a student coordinator on Loyola’s Student Leadership Development team. But perhaps nothing will be as memorable for her as meeting the former president.

“As nervous as we all were, it was so fun to get to know all of these accomplished young people,” McClear said of her backstage experience. “About 20 minutes before we were set to go on stage, President Obama joined us and made us all feel so comfortable, assuring each of us that we would just be having a conversation together.”

A centerpiece of the spring semester at Loyola, President Jo Ann Rooney, JD, LLM, EdD, first highlighted the importance of engaged citizenship in her note to the community at the beginning of the year. Special discussions addressing citizen rights, social activism, and immigration were held throughout the semester and will continue to be programmed into the 2017-18 academic year.

“It isn’t always easy work and there isn’t immediate satisfaction, but making sure that young people realize their own potential, the opportunity to make a change in the public sector, is something that I believe is possible,” said McClear, who hopes to promote this philosophy herself as she moves into the higher education realm. In the fall, she will begin work on her master’s degree in higher education at Boston College.

The 80-minute discussion in Hyde Park moved from such topics as voter participation to the question of where the young generation is sourcing their information. Obama mostly turned to the panel to answer these questions, but interjected his own thoughts and experiences throughout the conversation.

Asya Meadows, a second-year student at Arrupe College, also attended the event. Sitting in the audience, she took to heart the former president’s advice of shifting focus from “what should I be” to “what do I want to accomplish.”

“President Obama gave an example of Bill Gates, explaining that [Gates] didn’t sit around and say, ‘I want to be a millionaire,’” said Meadows. “He focused on creating quality software for people’s computers, then the millions followed as a result. And that is where our attention should be aimed—at producing quality work for others, which gives us a better sense of purpose.”

Meadows hopes to apply that advice in her leadership roles as the Arrupe student government president and as a member of the Dreamers and Allies Student Organization (DASO).

Similarly, audience member Jake Dumbald, the incoming president of the Student Government of Loyola Chicago, pinpointed a theme from the panel that will influence his governance: the importance of conversation.

“Conversations with peers can often be the starting point and the catalyst for change both in them and in you, and I think that is an essential facet of how I want to lead,” Dumbald described.

Toward the end of the event, Obama honed in on the topic, focusing on ways a common conversation could be created with news sources becoming increasingly polarized. McClear responded with the importance of listening to understand rather than to respond.

“One of the biggest themes we kept coming back to is that our political system is very divided, and a lot of that has contributed to a lack of communication,” she explained. “I especially have noticed it with the prevalence of social media. So often people find it easier to have an argument over Facebook comments or Twitter rather than having a productive conversation where people are able to understand each other’s perspective and respect viewpoints different than their own.”

McClear said that the fine points of listening are among the many lessons she learned during her time at Loyola, which prepared her for this culminating moment in her college career.

“I have grown so much over the last four years and the list of people to credit for their mentorship and guidance is too long to even begin,” she said. “Loyola has taught me how to have difficult conversations, how to think critically about all that I do, and at the end of the day, to remember that my education and degree isn’t for me, but instead the people that I will be able to serve and support throughout my life.”