Former president Obama asked to give commencement speech by student government



President Barack Obama stops at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Ill., following his speech at the Illinois State Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

By Gillian Dunlop, Staff Writer

For many students, former President Barack Obama is the ideal candidate for the Spring 2017 Commencement address, according to a petition circulating campus.

“Barack Obama is one of the people a lot of people wanted,” Vice President Alex Villanueva said. “It’s going to be a symbolic homecoming (for Obama) to Illinois and it is perfectly timed with our birthday.”

A campaign was launched Wednesday with the goal of inviting the former president to campus. Student body president Ron Lewis, Villanueva and Mark Schaer, Illinois Student Government press secretary, lead this operation.

“We approached some other student leaders at Illini Union and Student Alumni Ambassadors and tried to get in contact with different cultural houses,” Villanueva said. “We’ve been communicating about social media strategies and event planning.”

The strategies behind this campaign included writing handwritten letters to Obama, sending formal invitations and mobilizing on social media.

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    “We’ve been in contact with people who have worked in the White House and (our campaign) is a full out assault online with social media,” Villanueva said. “It’s a big way for us to communicate to leaders like Tammy Duckworth and of course, we’re communicating with Facebook.”

    Lewis posted a letter he wrote to Obama on his Facebook page, encouraging people to share it and write their own. Lewis encouraged the movement by using the hashtag #ILLINOISInvitesObama.

    In the letter, Lewis both thanked Obama for his service as president and promoted the University.

    “We think that you would be the best speaker to talk about your story and how it is important for students to continue to value education,” he wrote.

    The campaign to invite Obama to the commencement officially started in November; however, it was not made public until this afternoon.

    “When we were looking at it in November, it was right after the election,” Villanueva said. “Then, we were going to go smack dab into Thanksgiving break, then finals, then Christmas break, and we didn’t want those breaks to hurt the momentum the campaign could have.”

    So far the efforts online have been successful, with more than 300 people signing the online petition to invite Obama to the University, as of Wednesday evening.

    On the supporter comments section of the petition, students have been voicing their thoughts on the possibility of Obama coming to campus.

    “He has always inspired us to move forward as a nation and I would love to hear him speak as we move forward from our college careers,” McKenzie Sutherland wrote as her reason for signing the petition.

    In addition to the online petition, on Jan. 30 the Illinois Student Government will be having a hand-written letter event to encourage students and faculty to personally write to Obama and ask him to come. The time is yet to be determined.

    Villanueva has no real way of telling how successful the campaign will be, but he insists it is up to the student body and community to make it happen.

    “(This will be successful) if we get in the multiple thousands in the petition signatures, if we get people tweeting at Obama every day, if we have people constantly inviting people to the event,” Villanueva said. “It’s one of those things that, depending on how much care and energy is put into it, it’s going to happen. It’s up to the community.”

    Villanueva believes Obama’s presence at the graduation ceremony will be a great way to celebrate both Obama’s presidency and the University’s sesquicentennial.

    “This would be a great opportunity for people to celebrate graduation, celebrate the University’s 150th birthday and celebrate a President’s legacy,” he said. “If people want it to happen and put the work in to make it happen, then I think it’ll happen.”

    Even the University is behind the movement, and posted about the petition on the official University of Illinois Instagram account.