Most people will never see the president of the United States in their lifetime — but if one student group has its way, UC Berkeley students might be able to count themselves among the lucky few. After all, for all the glory that a president receives, it is distinctly ironic that he will never be physically seen by the vast majority of people he leads and represents. Naturally, then, any movement to bring the president anywhere is immediately of interest, especially when that anywhere happens to be UC Berkeley. It comes as little surprise, then, that that attention has been drawn to a local group campaigning to bring the president to our fair institution (for a commencement speech, of course). Is it all just a pipe dream, or have there been real inroads? And finally, why should President Barack Obama come to Berkeley anyway? To find out, we talked to the man spearheading the movement: Elias N. Saigali, president of the campus group Students For Change. Here are some of the highlights.
What’s the back story?
First things first: How did this all start? Elias Saigali, who happens to be a third-year transfer student to UC Berkeley from Santa Monica College, initially attempted to get President Obama to visit his community college and give a commencement speech there. Despite making significant inroads, however, the unideal timing of Saigali’s efforts proved too great a hurdle. After he found a new home at UC Berkeley, however, the dream was alive and well once again. Saigali’s group at Cal, Students For Change, actually started as Students for Obama but was changed to be more inclusive when members realized that using “ ‘Obama’ was a restricting factor” and narrowed the organization’s scope: They didn’t want to be just about Obama.
Has any significant process been made?
Actually, yes: Saigali has received encouragement from many UC officials. These include a personal letter of encouragement to Saigali from UC President Janet Napolitano, words of endorsement from the chair of the political science department and even an offer from the dean of UC Berkeley School of Law to sign any official invitation that is sent out. It is important to note, however, that Napolitano is encouraging such campaigns for all of the UC system, not just UC Berkeley specifically. Students For Change’s petition has received approximately 1,100 signatures at the time of writing. In order to receive an official response from the White House, a petition requires 100,000 signatures.
How does Students For Change plan to succeed?
Even Saigali admits the president receives countless invitations each year from organizations to speak at events. He admits the key to victory is presenting UC Berkeley and its student population in a unique way: Specifically, the organization hopes to create a documentary featuring as many students as possible in order to convince the president that the trip to Berkeley is well worth his time. In this sense, Saigali sees the effort, while small at the moment, as requiring more of a communal push if it is to succeed.
So why Obama? And why Berkeley?
In Saigali’s view, the two are a perfect fit. He points to the president’s appointments of Cal alum and staff to prominent positions (the UC president was even sent to the 2014 Sochi Olympics), as well as Cal’s tradition of creating leaders such as Gov. Jerry Brown. Berkeley’s long and storied political culture is another decisive argument, in addition to numerous previous visits from U.S. presidents. Among these is President John F. Kennedy, whom Saigali sees as a parallel in some ways to Obama. In fact, Cal has had numerous famous speakers, including Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
But the interplay runs deeper than mere coincidences. The principle reason highlighted by Saigali is Berkeley’s standing as the nation’s best public university. In a time of turmoil for public education, Obama’s proposed speech is meant to be seen as a stand for public education — and these students see no better place to do so than at Berkeley. Saigali points to Obama’s support of student affordability as proof of this commitment to public education.
What are the goals for the speech?
It is, however, important to note that Saigali and the rest of these campaigning students do not necessarily believe that Obama’s speech (if he indeed makes one) should be political. Instead, they believe that the president would be capable of offering up wise words for the class of 2015, whose commencement the speech has specifically been targeted for. The desire is not to focus on grand ideas for the future — instead, interest has become very localized on the here and now.
In the end, it remains to be seen whether Saigali and his group are successful in their efforts. If they are, UC Berkeley will join the likes of Morehouse College and the United States Naval Academy in having the honor of hosting Obama.