In a visit to The University of Texas-Pan American Friday, Feb. 22, Barack Obama, candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, spent his first hour on campus hearing from 20 Rio Grande Valley college students about the problems they and others faced in financing a college education.
"One of my primary interests and concerns as a presidential candidate and hopefully as president will be to make sure that we are opening access to a college education for everybody," he said.
Citing statistics revealing that college costs are up 40 percent and the average Texan leaves school more than $18,000 in debt, Obama described some of his educational affordability proposals, one of which is a $4,000 tuition credit for every student every year. For that $4,000 each student would participate in 100 hours of community service, such as working in a homeless shelter or veterans home.
"The idea is this - if we invest in the young people of America, they invest back in America and move the country forward," he said.
UTPA student Tony Martinez, a U.S. Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq and helped organize the candidate's visit, questioned Obama about the adequacy of GI benefits for education assistance for veterans who entered the military as reservists and do not enjoy the same coverage as active duty military personnel.
"I think we need to create a new GI Bill of Rights," Obama said, noting his grandfather who served in WWII had all his college costs paid for when he returned home. In light of the number of reservists who have been in combat in the past five years, he said he'd make it a priority for the Pentagon to review how these veteran benefits are being determined.
UTPA senior Ellen Fagala, a non-traditional, older student at UTPA who also told Obama about her financial problems going to school, said she was very impressed that Obama sat down and talked with them.
"He was willing to make eye contact with us and to listen to our questions and answer them," she said. "He stayed over the time when his aides were trying to pull him away and continued to speak with us. He made sure that he got to hear us and we got to hear him," she said.
Obama later addressed a crowd of 3,000 in the University's Chapel Lawn, where he removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves under the warm South Texas sun.
"Thanks for the weather because I've been cold all winter," he said. "I'm glad to be in South Texas."
Obama gave a rousing, 45-minute political speech about current challenges and issues America faces and some of his proposals to address them. He said he's been asked by many why he decided to run for president at such a young age.
"I'm running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now," he said.
Obama evoked the familiar phrase of Cesar Chavez - "Si, Se Puede (yes, we can)" - several times in his speech and ended his talk with a message about the realization of hope.
"Nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened until someone, somewhere was willing to hope," he said.
Fagala said Obama's visit brought awareness to our community and to the students.
"We had a candidate that was willing to come to the Valley and to this campus for the first time in 20 years. That says something about the voice we have right now," she said.
"We want to get politicians here regardless of who they are or what political affiliation they are. We want national politicians to recognize this area and to give the people of this area the opportunity to recognize the fact that politics is very influential in their lives," he said.
Handley said he hoped students would take advantage of early voting available in the Library lobby.
"It's the easiest and closest way for them to do it (vote). I think that students are starting to realize that when we have presidential candidates come here that they do matter," he said.