Obama visits George Mason
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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