Keeping the Dream Alive: Reflections on Meeting President Obama

A week ago Monday, former president Barrack Obama came to the University of Chicago, making his first public appearance since the end of his presidency. From a theater in the basement of the Logan Center for the Arts he addressed students and citizens from around the city, and was broadcast around the country.

President Obama visits UChicago Monday, April 24, 2017, for a panel discussion with Chicago-area students. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Over the course of the last year it has been hard to shake the idea that our country is becoming more and more polarized. The mythical middle ground that once characterized American politics seems to be fading away, replaced by a raging battle between left and right. Whether this is true or not, that feeling has sewn disillusion into the hearts of many Americans, and all too often, has found its way into the thinking of young people across the country. Dealing with this issue appears to be a focal point for the Obama post-presidency. It is with this in mind that I went to hear him speak last Monday.

For some of us it was an opportunity to see a president we had missed, for others it was a chance to hear the former president’s vision for the future, and for a few of us it was a chance to meet a man who had been, for eight years, dubbed the leader of the free world. Looking back, a few of the President’s comments stand out:

First and foremost, the event was a chilling reminder of the privilege we hold. For the students at the event, it was an important trust of responsibility in the future of our country. The president took the time to remind us that our impact is not in where we are now, but in what we do going forward.  To recognize our privilege is to recognize a burden, and a challenge to make good on the opportunities we as aspiring leaders have been given.

(Photo by Jean Lachat- University of Chicago)

On stage, the president guided the panel of students and recent graduates through reflections on their experiences with the political system, and the experiences that lead them to their current path. The common theme throughout their stories was in the people who had pushed them to engage at some point in their past. For those of us who seek to make a career out of moving people to take action, it was a reminder of the power of personal connection in the engagement process.

Furthermore, during his speech, the president asked us to “worry less about what we want to be, and more about what we want to do.” I felt that this was a direct challenge to overcome the thinking that we have done enough, that success has an end, and a challenge to realize that the fight to achieving our goals never ends. This success is not defined by titles or profile pictures, but by battles won and lives changed.

(Photo by Jean Lachat- University of Chicago)

It can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that you are special, powerful, or hot stuff when you shake hands with the former President of the United States, but the event was about motivating students to do exactly the opposite. It seems to be of essential importance to the president that young people keep their dreams alive, keep hoping, and pursue with passion the world that they want to see.  It seems to be important to him that we remember that our aspirations for the world are separate from those for our career, and that we remember that by following our outline for a brighter future we will achieve success in ways we never imagined.

About the Author

Adam Reynolds is a Vote Everywhere Ambassador and third year student at the University of Chicago. As a co-founder of the UChicgao Democracy Initiative he is actively involved in voter registration efforts and in civic activism. He is also involved with MUNUC, ChoMUN, and Team (UChicago’s Model UN organizations), as a tour guide on campus, and as a Resident Assistant in Halperin House. He is an economics major, human rights minor, and spends his free time exploring Chicago and hanging out with friends.