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Obama visits George Mason

Jenna Johnson

Friday was one of those gorgeous spring days at George Mason University. Students who didn't have class (or who skipped) could leisurely walk along tree-lined paths, play tennis, catch up on class readings outside.... or wander over to the Patriot Center and listen to President Obama talk about his signature health-care initiative, which is expected to go to a vote this weekend.

"Hello, George Mason!" Obama said to a crowd of about 8,500 people over chants of "Yes we can!" Banners and signs were not allowed, but buttons, stickers and T-shirts were. A university spokesman estimates students made up about 60 percent of the crowd, and a few more students watched on televisions in the student union.

"I don't really follow" the health-care debate, said Humza Haider, 19, a freshman who does not have health insurance. "I just want to see the president."

Some students posted their minute-by-minute thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag, #obamagmu. "What a brilliant day: beautiful weather, Indian food, yoga, saw Obama, recorded some songs...all is well," tweeted @chantalinaa.

Obama isn't a stranger to George Mason. Three years ago, he held his first campaign rally at the university. And on Friday morning, he reminded students that they were part of his plan to "bring change to that city across the river" and that history is again ready to be made this weekend.

The health-care bill, as it stands now, could have a huge effect on the lives of college students, allowing them to stay on their parent's health insurance for longer, making it easier for them to get coverage, creating a need for more doctors or changing the ways people receive care. Plus, lawmakers threw a student-loan overhaul into the package (although, Obama didn't bring it up at all during his Friday speech).

"We should care because it's affecting the whole country," said student David Schneider, 18, a freshman from Falls Church who says his main source of news is "The Daily Show." "It's our future. It's about us."

Naomi Blank, a senior English major, said many of her friends (especially the super senior ones) make their employment decisions based on benefits. "For them it's like, 'I can't be on my parent's health insurance. I can't afford it on my own. I can't find a job. I can't get into grad school. What do I do?'"

So a college campus is a logical place to give a final speech before the final weekend and the final vote... But why George Mason?

Virginia is a battleground state. Still, the commuter campus often gets overshadowed by the other "George universities" across the river -- Georgetown and George Washington -- even though it beats both schools in enrollment numbers.

Among its three campuses in Northern Virginia, GMU has more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students. (And it offers in-state tuition that's a fraction of the amount charged at the other Georges.)

GMU also has a high concentration of international students and global education programs in more than 30 countries. Walking around the suburban campus, seeing all of the various styles of fashion and listening to all of the languages swirling around is like being at a United Nations conference.

And in the last few years, the university has constructed new facilities, including a state-of-the-art green dining hall, pushed to give the campus a more residential feel and launched a number of innovative new programs.

In 2006, its basketball team surprised everyone and made it to the March Madness Final Four, bringing unprecedented attention to campus. In February 2007, Obama hosted his campaign party. And in 2008, U.S. News & World Report named Mason the No. 1 national university to watch on its list of "Up-and-Coming Schools."

"This used to be a boring, anti-social type campus," said Jeff Hamilton, 22, a graduate biochemistry student who has been at GMU since he started as an undergraduate in 2005. "It's really changed in the last two, three years. Everyone's talking about it."

When Obama's visit was announced earlier this week, many faculty members canceled classes and students debated how early in the morning to start lining up outside the Patriot Center.

It's often difficult to get students to rally around causes bigger than just their campus and their circle of Facebook friends -- and the health-care debate has been difficult to track as it has evolved over the last several months.

But many students on campus don't have health insurance or they are paying huge premiums to have it, said Pakiza Nasher, 21, the president of the George Mason College Democrats. A lack of insurance is "very prevalent," she said. "Health insurance is the last thing students think they need."

The issue has come up at club meetings of students who plan to go to medical school, but it also comes up when students make choices based on having or not having coverage, said Ayesha Rahmanyar, 23, senior biology major who has bounced between her parent's health insurance plan and a limited student one offered by the college.

"International Week is coming up, and we always have a huge soccer game," Rahmanyar said. "Last year my friend broke her leg. She doesn't have health insurance. So, this year she's not playing. She can't afford it."

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By Jenna Johnson  |  March 19, 2010; 4:58 PM ET
Categories:  News Overload  | Tags: George Mason  
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Next: Grad students fight for maternity leave


What a fresh piece of actual reporting -- lots of interviews, quotes (don't think there's an anonymous one in the bunch), detail-rich description of the mood, the scene, how the college has changed. What can I say, if only all online reporting was like this! Thank you.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | March 19, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

Those aged 18-20 are also adults and not "kids" or "teens", meaning they shouldn't be called those words. It's good that President Obama went to make a speech at George Mason University for the health care reform bill which must become law. The bill which stop unecessary subsidies to greedy student loans and instead put the money aside for pell grants must also become law.

Posted by: LibertyForAll | March 19, 2010 11:31 PM | Report abuse

GMU is not a commuter school that it once was (pre 2000). It has one of the largest residential campuses in VA.
Please check your facts. . .

Posted by: LG25 | March 20, 2010 12:01 AM | Report abuse

A kook writes: "Those aged 18-20 are also adults and not 'kids' or 'teens'..."

Uh, two-thirds of that group most certainly are teens.

And based on all available evidence, almost all of them are kids.

Posted by: thebump | March 20, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

So how many of these students, many of whom have made the rational choice to forego health insurance because they're healthy, will be pleased with their Congressmen when they're forced to go buy insurance so as to subsidize everyone else?

Posted by: asdf2 | March 20, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Why, golly! This reporting is so fresh that it left out the fact that the "rally" fell a few thousand seats short of filling the Patriot Center.

Posted by: hofbrauhausde | March 20, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Interviewing college students is worthless. The majority have no clue what is actually behind this bill. They hear words of "hope and change" and "yes we can" and think its cool. These universities are bastions of liberalism and these kids are receiving the socialist education. If anyone actually sat down and read this bill they certainly would not vote for it. Why doesn't the Washington Post report on what is actually in the bill? Oh wait, that would be real reporting and that is not what the Post does. The Post simply tries to further the liberal agenda.

Posted by: Jsuf | March 20, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Liberty for all:

First off, please check your grammar. Your wording is atrocious.

Now to the real points. Why must health care become law and why must these student loan overhaul become law? I pay for health care as well as paying my student loans back. Health care is not free and neither is an education. Why should I have to pay for you to get free health care and a free education. Health care and higher education are not and should not be considered "rights of American citizens." Things cost money and are not free.

Posted by: Jsuf | March 20, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Jsuf: A little prickly, aren't we? "Socialist education?" Like, socialist police departments, socialist fire departments, socialist Medicare, socialist Military, ad nauseum, and I do mean nauseum.

What part of "Common WEALTH" did you miss in 6th grade? Nothing is free; I'll grant you that. The concept is that 1/6th of our GDP is spent on health related expenses; why not cut that percentage to 1/9th, and put the money to debt reduction? Do you think calling every monetary expenditure "socialist" really gets to the isssues at hand?

Putting the "CANT" in Republicant.

Posted by: RogerRamjet2 | March 20, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse


How on earth can you say that this bill is going to help reduce the debt? There is no evidence that this bill will cut the health related expenses from 1/6th to 1/9th of our GDP. This bill is loaded with so many expenses that are in no way, shape or form related to health care. Take a look at what Louisiana and Nebraska are receiving from this bill.

Please keep your hope and give me my change back.

Posted by: Jsuf | March 20, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

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