Chicago: Reflecting On President Obama’s Conversation With Young Leaders


The University of Illinois at Chicago participates in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. In his role at UIC, Associate Director of Student Development Services Spencer Long coordinates the ALL IN Challenge efforts and programming on campus.

“Escape Forward.” This was the theme of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) State of the University Address given by Chancellor Amiridis earlier this semester. The term, “Escape Forward,” was used as a metaphor to look at the future. Although the university currently faces many challenges, we have the opportunity as a campus community to unite around the future and, “Escape Forward,” towards the things we can accomplish together. I couldn’t help but reflect upon this message listening to President Obama as he held his, “Conversation with Young Leaders,” at the University of Chicago in April.

Students from the University of Illinois at Chicago, along with Spencer Long, attended President Obama’s recent discussion on civic engagement. Civic Nation
Students from the University of Illinois at Chicago, along with Spencer Long, attended President Obama’s recent discussion on civic engagement.
At UIC I oversee the Student Leadership Development and Volunteer Services office, where I am responsible for leadership development, volunteer and community service, and civic learning and democratic engagement programming. Having the opportunity to travel with 18 of our students across town for this event couldn’t have come at a better time. Over the course of the last year our university community has been focused on ways we can increase voter registration, create opportunities and resources for our students to be better informed voters, and lastly to get more of our students to participate in casting their votes on election day. Learning that this will be a focus of President Obama’s Library and Presidential Center was an inspiration for our students who were able to attend the event.

Each of the students who attended this event had all been recognized for their leadership and service, both on and off campus, while attending UIC. Each of them is passionate about leading their peers and finding ways they can get them more engaged around these important civic topics. Reflecting on this school year, and after the event, many of the subjects President Obama discussed with the six panelists are many of the same conversations we have had on our campus. As we search for ways to engage more young people we have been asking the same questions: why don’t they participate and what would get them to participate?

As I think back to the, “Escape Forward,” message that Chancellor Amiridis gave during his State of the University Address, I heard a similar message carried throughout President Obama’s Conversation with Young Leaders. You see President Obama, like myself, knows the future of our country is in the hands of our young leaders. The way to, “Escape Forward,” as a country is to invest in our young people. If we don’t take the time to develop them, find ways to increase their civic participation, and listen to their needs, wants, and worries, we are doing ourselves a major disservice.

Currently in presidential elections only about 50% of young people vote. What is even more alarming, being that in mid-year elections only about 20% participate. This means that our young people, for a multitude of reasons, do not feel it is important enough for them to participate in these crucial moments in our democracy. As we, “Escape Forward,” as a nation we need to learn, research, and solve the reasons why this is the case. What is encouraging is that we have some students who are ready to get to work. One such student is Barbara Leane, who was one of the students who attended the event from UIC.

In a reflection, Barbara describes her experience at the event:

“President Obama emphasized that young people have the power to invoke change in their community. Panel members agreed that young adults should reach out to youth to inspire them to get involved early in life and remain involved as they progress in higher education and their eventual career. I am currently involved within the kinesiology and pre-health community at UIC. I aspire to bring social issues, particularly of LGBTQ+ community, to light in the scientific community. I would like incoming freshmen and transfer students to see that although we spend the majority of our time studying for exams, we can make an impact in our community by bridging the gap between social and healthcare issues.”

I see the future as bright and know with more time, resources, and conversations we will be on the path to, “Escape Forward,” to greatness.

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