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Thursday, 22 August 2013

Barack Obama!

By the most wonderful luck, I have seen and heard President Barack Obama speak first-hand within the first month of my landing in the US to pursue my under-graduate education. Perhaps it is a sign that I will be famous and important some day?

I heard a few days back that Obama would be visiting The University at Buffalo (UB) , and signed up for a student lottery for tickets.  I received a confirmation email the day before yesterday stating that I had won a ticket. I couldn't sleep all night for excitement. We were told to reach at 9 am, but by the time I got there, at 9.02, there was a miles-long line (for the Alumni Arena, where the event would take place) extending all over the north campus. I resigned myself to a long wait, chatting with a few friends I'd made in the line, and texting a friend at the College of William and Mary. It was like waiting for darshanam at Tirupati, only, out-of-doors.

When I finally got in, at 11.00 am (and there were still a lot of people behind us) I scrambled to find a good vantage point. All the seating was full, so I sat down on the stairs. There were around 6000 people in an arena with seating for 4000. The speech was due to begin around 11.15, and there was a band playing, a large screen saying 'Welcome, Mr. President' and anticipation in the air.

We heard, first, the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, then a sophomore student giving an introduction, and finally - the president!

The crowd rose and there was a humungous amount of cheering and clapping as Obama entered the arena and got on to the stage. He hugged the sophomore student. The screen entered video mode and after the cheering died down, Obama greeted the crowd, which started them off again. It was a crowd which didn't need much prompting to clap or cheer - I missed many bits and pieces of the speech which were obscured by the boisterousness of the crowd.

The topic was 'Affordable Education', a cause for which UB as starting point made sense, as UB is one of the best 'best-value' colleges in the US. With a good education at nearly half the price of Ivy league or other top universities, UB gives 'bang for the buck' (a phrase Obama used in his speech)!

He made a lot of good points (although I am not very well-informed about American politics and the system, so I cannot really make a qualified judgment), but I thought a lot of it was well-written - or well-spoken - rhetoric. I also found myself more carried away by his oratory skills and the enthusiastic crowd than by the merit of his arguments, which I hadn't had time to consider yet.

The only concrete proposals he made were these:

1. Change the rating system so that universities are rated on how much they provide for how much money, how many students actually graduate, how many of them graduate on time, how successful they are in finding jobs and in their careers, and how much debt they graduate with, rather than what the enrollment and admission rates, and facilities are. This was something I was very much in agreement with, because I do not like the present ratings system followed by agencies such as US News and World Report. It's high time we heard of good universities that more of us can actually get into.
2. Make the environment more competitive so that universities innovate to keep costs low.
3. Make funding aid and colleges a priority for state governments.
4. Shift the focus from profits from student loans to helping with student loans.
5. Make the 'Pay as you earn' program - where the student only has to pay back 10% of his/her income (as loan repayment) every month more accessible and widespread by spreading awareness and widening and increasing eligibility.

There were a few more I think that I cannot remember, but a good summary can be found here :

There's also a transcript here:

Somewhere in the middle of the speech a spectator shouted something I couldn't hear as it was drowned by roaring from the crowd. I later found out that it was "Traitor, Obama! Traitor, Obama!" Obama just said "thank you" and moved on as if nothing had happened!

There was also a point where he said "I love you too," which exponentially increased the crowd's already extremely raucous cheering.

It was wonderful seeing a man of such importance speak in so informal and apparently extempore a manner. I kept waiting for him to refer to a sheet, but he never did.

The excitement wore off only when I realized I had gotten on the wrong bus back (the routes changed as the some roads had to be closed off), and had to travel all the way to the South campus and back to the North Campus (12 km overall), walk to a bus stop, get off at the right stop, and walk again to my hotel, having crossed the road three times. Then I collapsed in a chair, exhausted, with no thoughts but of food and the bed.