Mentor Rhianna Rogers and Five Students Comment on Opportunity to See President Obama Talk About Education

By Michael Mancini, director of community and government relations, Office of Communications and Government Relations

September 24, 2013

Mentor Rhianna Rogers with students"The entire experience was awe-inspiring,” was how Rhianna Rogers, assistant professor of cultural studies, summed up her experience and the experience of many others attending President Barack Obama’s speech at the University at Buffalo on Aug. 22. She was accompanied by five SUNY Empire State College students and four Empire State College staff members. (Photo: ‌Empire State College students Iris Rivera, Vanessa Rehac and Charlesetta Magby-Peace, provided by Vanessa Rehac )

"It was a wonderful opportunity for our faculty, staff and most importantly our students," noted Merodie Hancock, president of Empire State College. "We thank [University of Buffalo] President Tripathi for extending an invitation to allow us to be part of this historical day; one that our students, faculty and staff will not soon forget."

Most of the students attending the speech were part of Empire State College’s College Achievement Requires Engaged Students (CARES) group that is made up of students in the Buffalo region who are committed to “creating and sustaining a variety of educational and cultural experiences that encourage student community.”

Vanessa Rehac, a cultural studies student and a CARES officer, noted, “I was glad to share the experience with two of my classmates from CARES … it was nice to sit with other students and discuss points and topics.” This was a moment that Rehac will treasure, much like her mother did when she saw President Kennedy. “I remember my mom telling me stories of seeing Kennedy speak and it was an experience she treasured,” said Rehac, office manager of the Southtown Teachers’ Center. She also is an avid photographer.

Obama’s main topic for his speech was about making higher education affordable. As Politico noted, “When Obama wants to talk about college costs, he often turns to SUNY.” As part of his comprehensive plan, he specifically cited Open SUNY as a model of using technology to redesign courses. As noted in the past, Empire State College is a major part of Open SUNY.

Other parts of the president’s plan include:

  • creation of a new rating system for colleges in which they would be evaluated based on various outcomes (such as graduation rates and graduate earnings), on affordability and on access (measures such as the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants)
  • linking student aid to these ratings, such that students who enroll at high performing colleges would receive larger Pell Grants and more favorable rates on student loans
  • creation of a new program that would give colleges a "bonus" if they enroll large numbers of students eligible for Pell Grants
  • toughening requirements on students receiving aid. For example, the president said that these rules might require completion of a certain percentage of classes to continue receiving aid

Iris Rivera, of Amherst, N.Y., and a cultural studies student at the college, heard the president’s message loud and clear and noted, “By adopting such measures perhaps more students will be able to get a good education without the fear of knowing that they have to pay student loans for a good portion of their lives.”

Rogers, who is the faculty advisor of CARES, was excited to share her experience with her students, “It made me happy to see involved students have the opportunity to attend such a wonderful, once- in-a-life time, event.”

Debbi Davis, of Buffalo, a business studies student, shared the sentiment of many attending the president’s speech, “I'll always remember feeling totally overwhelmed and caught up in the moment … and it felt good, even more so for me, because, for a few hours, I was part of a historical moment. I was actually in the room with the president of the United States … the first black president. I couldn't have been any prouder. Change takes time, and this was a major one. For it to happen in my lifetime is absolutely beyond awesome, inspiring and amazing.”

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