Students write letters in hopes of Obama commencement speech


Ryan Fang

Students at the Illini Union write letters Monday to persuade former president Barack Obama to speak at the University’s May 2017 commencement ceremony.

By Gillian Dunlop, Staff Writer

As a Muslim-American with immigrant parents, Zahra Hanifah distinctly remembers the amazing feeling of watching former president Barack Obama being inaugurated in 2008.

Now, as a sophomore in LAS, Hanifah is determined to do her part to encourage Obama to attend the University’s 2017 spring commencement.

“I remember (the teachers) collected the students, and we all sat around and watched the inauguration,” she said. “It was very patriotic, and it was very meaningful.”

Hanifah was one of the 73 people who wrote letters directly to Obama during a letter writing party at the Illini Union on Monday. Students and community members were asked to come support the commencement campaign by writing letters, taking pictures with a cardboard cutout of Obama and posting about it on Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s really positive,” Sophie Ruiz-Gehrt, senior in LAS and intern at the Union said. “A lot of people are not necessarily aware we’re trying to do this initiative.”

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Announced nearly a week ago, the campaign to bring Obama to campus has had a slow but steady social media climb. The Facebook page has about three thousand people invited, while the petition has almost two thousand signatures.

“We’re going to try and keep the momentum going on social media,” Mark Schaer, press secretary for the Illinois Student Government said. “We’ve gotten a lot of good responses.”

Although the letters have no specific format, many students decided to write long notes expressing their gratitude toward Obama.

“(The letters) are just what’s in people’s hearts, what they’re passionate about and why they want him to come,” Ruiz-Gehrt said.

To some, like Hanifah, inviting Obama to speak this year means more than simply having a celebrity come to campus.

“Right now, everyone has a sense of defeat against the government,” she said. “People are weary and restless and tired and everything seems terrible all at once. Obama brings a sense of hope and a reminder that there are leaders with a lot of good in their hearts.”

Ruiz-Gehrt believes that even non-Obama supporters would be happy to have him to campus.

“People who support him or not know he’s a big inspiration,” she said. “He’s a milestone in our generation of leaders in the world.”

Hanifah echoed these sentiments, saying that he made history at his inauguration.

“As a child, I was amazed a black man could be president,” she said. “He means a great deal to me in a lot of different ways.”

Although the campaign is still getting its footing, the letter writing party produced a solid turnout.

“I think that could be really powerful sending these letters to the former president,” Schaer said. “I’m getting a lot of good vibes. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the response overall has been very positive.”

The letters will be sent to the Obama Foundation, where they will hopefully end up in Obama’s hands.

“I said (in the letter) that I grew up with him, and that he was an integral part of my childhood,” Hanifah said. “Even though I didn’t fully understand his politics as a child, I knew that everyone around me gained hope through him, his election and his campaign.”

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