By Kristina Webb
“Service is an integral part of higher education in America.”
First lady Michelle Obama spoke these words as she addressed a crowd of more than 500 guests and reporters on Thursday for the Florida Campus Compact fundraiser and awards luncheon hosted by Miami-Dade College.
Obama used her time to promote the benefits of engaging students in community service and integrating community programs into schools’ curriculum.
Referring to community service as “her calling in life,” Obama described her journey from holding a lucrative position with a law firm in downtown Chicago to serving as Assistant Commissioner of Planning and Development for Chicago’s City Hall. She then started the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program focused on preparing youth for jobs in public service.
“My friends thought I was throwing away a promising career and a lucrative paycheck. They thought I was nuts,” Obama said. “And while a lot of people thought my heart was in the right place, they wondered if my head was on straight. But I knew right away that I had made the right decision.”
The first lady emphasized appreciation for the many educators present, saying that both she and President Obama are grateful for the “long hours and late nights” spent making up for “decreasing donations and increasing demands.”
“These issues are critical,” Obama said, adding that a shortage of educators is expected to occur within the next four years. She told the crowd of faculty, administrators, business figures, government officials and students from universities across Florida that their work was important to the future of our democracy.
“Today more than ever we really need skilled, committed, service-minded young people with the insight into these issues and experience working with these communities,” Obama said.
While many of her statements were met with cheers of acceptance, Obama remained serious and encouraged administrators to stay persistent when helping students become more interested in community service.
“It’s about producing good citizens and great leaders,” Obama said. “It’s about modeling a way of life.”
Obama discouraged the lofty, academic attitude of higher education, and told the crowd that it would be best served by “replacing the old image of the ivory tower with a caring and engaged heart.”
Obama closed her speech by thanking the educators responsible for creating active community service programs across the state.
“Today, President Obama and I, we honor you, we celebrate you, and more than anything, we thank you for everything that you do to serve your communities and your nation,” Obama said.
“We are not only assisting our students with their career aspirations; we are also preparing them for life,” said Dr. Eduardo Padron, president of Miami Dade College and co-chair of Florida Campus Compact. Padron also emphasized the benefits of service-based curriculum, saying that preparing students for work in the community was extremely important.
“We think it’s a great opportunity to be a part of something that in our community is really important,” said Jobel Anthony Cabezas, vice president of community service for the Miami-Dade College chapter of Phi Theta Kappa. “Education is paramount. It’s wonderful to see that this administration is doing so much to promote education.”
Lindsay Clark, a student coordinator for Join Us In Making Progress, a community service club at Rollins College, said that she was ecstatic to receive recognition for her hard work from the first lady.
“I think with her experience she can give us good advice, and encourage us to keep up the good work,” Clark said.
According to its Web site, Florida Campus Compact is an organization of over 50 college and university presidents “committed to helping students develop the values and skills of active citizenship through participation in public and community service.” The proceeds from Thursday’s luncheon benefit the organization.
Palm Beach Atlantic University applied to become a member of Florida Campus Compact at the beginning of the school year, said Fran Gentry, associate vice president for presidential and trustee relations. According to Gentry, PBA President Lu Hardin sent the letter and is awaiting a response.
On her visit, Obama became the first first lady to visit Miami’s National Historic Landmark Freedom Tower.
Built in 1925, the Freedom Tower is now owned by Miami-Dade College, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006 in recognition of the time that it served as an intake center for Cuban refugees in the 1960s. It was also home to Miami’s first newspaper, the “News and Metropolis.”