Sophomore Alex Werder received a call from an unrecognized number. The caller simply identified himself as James and asked Werder if he was the person responsible for setting up events on campus. The mystery caller asked to meet the President of the Kalamazoo College Democrats in 15 minutes for a look around K. Werder asked for some credentials before offering the stranger a tour of campus.
James said he was with the Obama Campaign looking for a venue where Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, could speak in Kalamazoo.
Biden wanted to come to Kalamazoo to address some college students between her other campaign stops in Grand Rapids and Battle Creek. An education advocate, she is the only second lady who has continued to work a full time job out of the White House while her husband serves in office. She currently teaches at Northern Virginia Community College.
“My internal reaction was, ‘Holy crap; this is pretty cool,’” said Werder. The aspiring political science major showed James and two other Obama staffers some possible venues on campus.
Three days later, after a frenzied preparation that included two secret service security sweeps of Hicks with bomb-sniffing dogs, negotiations over the number of allowed guests, furniture arrangement, and last minute invitations, the Stone Room was packed to capacity, mostly with students from K and Western Michigan University, awaiting a speech by the second lady.
Craig Isser ’13 sat among the crowd of about 130 in the sunlit room. Isser had done some research on Biden beforehand, and said he was excited to see a influential person interested in education come to the college.
“She is someone who really is a voice for the students who, and not just a voice,” he said, “She also has power.”
Next to Isser sat Jung Eun Pyeon ’16. She arrived on campus just weeks ago from California’s San Fernando Valley for her first year in college. She said she was still adjusting to campus life when she heard about the event. She plans on studying economics and business, and she is also interested in politics and wants the opportunity to learn more.
“What better chance than to listen to someone of Jill Biden’s stature?” she asked.
Attendees also included three sophomores who live in the Women’s Voice House, a Living Learning Cooperative with a mission of promoting feminist ideas on campus. Katherine Stevenson ’15, Samantha Foran ’15, and Abigail Keizer ’15 said they jumped at the occasion to see a woman in power speak.
“She’s a woman who is very high up, so we’re all excited to see what she has to say,” said Foran.
“She’s still teaching even though her husband is the Vice President,” said Stevenson of the second lady. “That’s really cool to see.”
According to Ms. Biden’s Press secretary, the second lady was grading her students’ papers on the way to the event.
The housemates said they plan on including the content of the second lady’s speech in their weekly dinner discussions.
Besides the K and WMU students, other attendees included Kalamazoo dignitaries and area politicians. Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell said Ms. Biden’s visit—her first campaign speech on a college campus—highlights the power and educational focus of the city.
In his introductory remarks, Werder noted that this upcoming election would be the first in which he could eligibly vote, and it would be one he remembers for the rest of his life. “This event combines two of my greatest loves,” he said, “Democratic politics and K.”
Biden recalled her voting for the first time while in college, and said that she voted for her husband, though she didn’t know him at the time.
She gave a student-focused speech, telling the audience the Obama administration will “have your back” if reelected.
“This feels right at home,” she said of campus, “and young people like you inspire me every single day. I often say that my kids are my heroes. And I want you to know that every single day, this administration is really fighting for all of you.”
She closed with a story about a community college student named Angie Flores, who introduced Ms. Biden at the Democratic National Convention.
“In this election,” she said, “we’ve got a choice whether we’re going to tell students like Angie, students like many of you, that ’you’re on your own,’ or whether we’re going to say, ’we’re all in this together, and everyone deserves a fair shot.’”
Biden stayed for a few minutes to shake students’ hands and pose for pictures before rushing off to Battle Creek.
After the crowds cleared and flurry subsided, Werder was smiling.
“It’s all been thrown together in the last 72 hours,” he said, “so it’s been a whirlwind, but we’re all really excited that she took the time and came out to see us.”
Story by Elaine Ezekiel ’13; Photo by Erik Holladay