Obama calls on college students to vote during Urbana-Champaign speech

Former President Barack Obama speaks at the Urbana-Champaign campus Sept. 7. Photo: Marissa Brewer

A crowd of guests — including some UIC students — filled Foellinger Auditorium Sept. 7 to see former President Barack Obama during his visit to the Urbana-Champaign campus, where he spoke about the importance of voting and later received an ethics award.

Lines formed early. Crowds spilled into another room. Thousands watched live online.

Dominic Belcaster was among about 120 UIC students in attendance.

“I was right in the first row on the balcony,” said the graduate student, who, like others, received a ticket by random lottery.

“[Obama] is one of the biggest role models in my life,” said Belcaster, who shared his appreciation for Obama’s support of the gay community. “When I was 11, I remember seeing Obama and thinking, ‘This guy is here to fight for me.’”

For many, the former president has been their champion, too, and for similar reasons, Obama was chosen to receive the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government.

“I am thrilled that [former President Obama] accepted our offer,” Killeen said at the event, adding that the award is given annually to public officials who have dedicated their careers to the highest ideal of ethics, fair play and service to the country.

Obama gave his thanks to U of I System leaders for the award during his speech, before critiquing the Trump administration and Republicans’ control of Congress and the White House. To the audience, the remarks seemed to mark a step toward his reemergence in the public service and political arena. Obama, however, turned the responsibility of mobilizing for change on the American people.

“The antidote to a government controlled by a powerful fear, a government that divides, is a government by the organized, energized, inclusive many,” he said.

He called on youth, especially, to cast their ballots in November midterm elections, which, he said, could be a turning point for U.S. democracy.

For Belcaster, the call for students to vote and get involved was a strong, influential force.

“Half the time, I’m wondering, ‘Who cares if we actually vote?’ he said. “But hearing him say it motivated me.”

College students, especially, can make a big impact.

“Sometimes, it’s the small margin that provides a win,” said Spencer Long, director of UIC Student Leadership and Civic Engagement. “College-age voters are the largest demographic that can vote right now, and they can really change what’s happening.”

For information about voter registration and candidates, visit vote.uic.edu

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