NEW YORK -- President Barack Obama's commencement address Monday at Barnard College was filled with moments reminiscent of the 2008 presidential campaign, with students chanting after his remarks, "Yes, we can!" and "Obama, Obama!" But after the cheering stopped, the general commencement adages that peppered Obama's speech -- such as "persevere, nothing worthwhile is easy" -- left some students cold.
"There was no definitive statement at a moment when there could have been," said Embry Owen, a graduating senior. "There could have been more than the life-lesson things."
Parents lined up at the Manhattan women's college's gates more than five hours before Obama was scheduled to speak. The campus went on total lockdown at 11:00 a.m., and the school gave guests blue "President Obama At Barnard Commencement 2012" caps. The campus became a mini-campaign zone for college kids at a time when Obama needs all the youth support he can get.
But while Obama took the opportunity to discuss youth empowerment and urged the 600 graduates to make this the "century where women shape ... the destiny of this nation," he didn’t touch on an issue that might hobble their ability to achieve that destiny: mounting student debt.
Hallie McPherson, 22, is graduating from Barnard with a degree in English and $14,000 in student debt. But she considers herself lucky: Her loans are federally subsidized, and they're much smaller than those of her friends, who owe sums as much as $70,000.
"My debt is relatively low," said McPherson, who is graduating into a waitressing job and who hopes to work eventually in publishing. "I feel confident about my own ability to pay it off."
And while she said she's pleased Obama is putting student loans on his broader agenda, "I wonder how effective his policies will be."
Most members of America's class of 2012 are graduating with student debt. According to a lengthy New York Times article published this weekend, the number of bachelor's degree students who borrow to pay for school has doubled since 1993, from 45 to 94 percent. Student debt burdens averaged about $23,300 for the class of 2011.
Half of Barnard's students receive financial aid, with the average Barnard student owing $17,000 in student loan debt, according to Barnard's president Debora Spar.
Sevan Gatsby, an architecture major, is graduating with $15,000 in debt, a load she also considers low. "Still, it's a concern. We're encouraged to work for nonprofits, for jobs that engage with people who need help," she said. "But we also have to worry about paying the rent. It's a difficult time: You want to do good, but you have to stabilize yourself financially."
Gatsby said she identified with Obama's speech, since her parents are immigrants "living out the American dream."
Obama spoke in light blue robes that matched the graduates', since he graduated from Columbia College, Barnard's affiliate. While Obama didn't directly mention the election, he urged students to become politically active. "I've seen you engage, and I've seen you turn out in record numbers," he said. He also referenced "refighting long-settled battles over women's rights" as one of the reasons why he chose to speak at Barnard in the first place.
The White House called Spar to request the engagement in late February, after Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut." Obama's call to Fluke and the resurfacing of debates over reproductive rights led to the emergence of women's health as a major 2012 campaign theme.
Obama proclaimed this week to be National Women's Health Week shortly before he spoke at Barnard.
"It certainly felt like he was talking to young people, but it wasn't as much of a campaign speech as one might have imagined," Spar told The Huffington Post. "The fact that it's a women's college would lead you to believe he might give a speech on women's issues."
Adrienne Peñaloza, who is graduating into a job with an architecture firm, felt the speech "was rather general." She'd hoped he would discuss issues such as reproductive rights and college affordability. "But he added personal touches that really connected with us," she said. "I was sitting a couple of rows away from him and had to keep rubbing my eyes to believe he was really there."
Spar greeted Obama before the speech. "He's a delightful guy," she said. Spar and Obama whispered to each other throughout the ceremony, with Obama commenting about how hard a time he'll have when his daughters graduate. "I was pointing out to him there's a few people who start crying," Spar said. "He didn't cry."
Obama's message of political engagement, Spar said, isn't what she was expecting. Still, "this was the class that voted for him in their first election ever."
Rachel Peck, an English major graduating into a public relations job, was among them. "He was the first person I voted for," she said. "I was on campus when he was first elected, and everyone was in the streets."
Since then, however, Spar says she's seen a "rise of cynicism," especially among youth voters. "It's an important message to say that if you want to fix the political situation, you have to become part of it."
Disclosure: The author of this article is a Barnard graduate.
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