Brigid Bergin is the City Hall reporter for WNYC. She covers city politics including the 2013 mayoral race and transition.
President Barack Obama arrived in New York City Monday and his first stop was the campus of his alma mater - Columbia University - where he addressed some 600 women graduating from Barnard College, the university's liberal arts college for women.
The speech, which Obama gave from Columbia's south lawn under strict security, marks the only undergraduate commencement address the president will deliver this year.
He will also speak at Joplin High School in Joplin, Missouri, and at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. But in a campaign season punctuated by debates over women’s issues – from reproductive health to what defines “work,” the choice to speak at Barnard is seen by many as symbolic. Obama did not shy away from those topics.
"As young women, you’re also going to grapple with some unique challenges," he told the assembled graduates. "Like whether you’ll be able to earn equal pay for equal work; whether you’ll be able to balance the demands of your job and your family; whether you’ll be able to fully control decisions about your own health."
For most of the academic year, the college had no inkling that the president was an option for a graduation speaker.
“It was really kind of out of the blue, in fact it was totally out of the blue,” said Debora Spar, president of Barnard College and a political scientist by training. “We just received a phone call, unprompted by us on February 29th, asking if President Obama could give our commencement address.”
That date also happened to be the day when conservative talk-radio host, Rush Limbaugh, called Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke a “slut” after she testified on Capitol Hill in support of birth control access. The school had originally scheduled New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who agreed to step aside given the president’s request.
While the call was a surprise, Spar doesn’t think the president’s decision was coincidental given that women’s issues, “clearly, somewhat shockingly, have been a major policy discussion this year.”
She hoped Obama uses the opportunity to offer her young grads, “words of encouragement, words of inspiration, support for women’s issues, support for reproductive rights, in addition to the general things,” said Spar, like “words of advice of what you should do when you wander out there into the real world.”
Most of the president's address set politics aside - he asked that this generation of graduates step up to lead the country.
"My first piece of advice is this: Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table," he said. "Our founders understood that America does not stand still; we are dynamic, not static. We look forward, not back. And now that new doors have been opened for you, you’ve got an obligation to seize those opportunities."
Before Jessica Blank, 22, wanders into that real world she has one major hurdle to cross. She’s also speaking at graduation. The political science major, who will leave Barnard for a leadership training program at Gannett, said while her friends are excited about the president’s speech, she’s having an “out-of-body experience.”
“Speaking in front of thousands of people is hard enough,” said Blank. “But every time I thought my speech was near done, the thought that would come into my head was, 'President Obama is going to be there - do you really think it's that good?”
Blank said one of her earliest memories at Barnard was heading down from the Morningside Heights campus to Times Square on election night in 2008 to celebrate Obama’s win.
The news that Obama opted to speak at Barnard’s graduation, as opposed to his own Columbia College, did ruffle some student feathers.
“Obviously, we respect that he’s speaking at a Columbia affiliated institution,” said Nashoba Santhanam, 21, a junior at Columbia College and president of the Columbia College Republicans. “It does seem to me that Barnard was chosen for political reasons,” adding that some felt it was a “snub” to Obama’s alma mater.
Barnard did hold a lottery to allow several hundred students from other schools at Columbia to attend the president’s speech.
Santhanam said he expects the president will talk about “the student loan code and gay marriage,” but wishes he’d talk about, “what the job situation is for people who are graduating from college.”
The president addressed his recent position in support of same-sex marriage. Before last week’s announcement, Barnard had already planned to award an honorary medal the Evan Wolfson, the founder of the same-sex marriage advocacy group, Freedom to Marry.
"Whenever you feel that creeping cynicism, whenever you hear those voices say you can’t make a difference, whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower -- the trajectory of this country should give you hope," the President said. "That’s how we achieved women’s rights. That's how we achieved voting rights. That's how we achieved workers’ rights. That's how we achieved gay rights. That’s how we’ve made this Union more perfect."
Barnard president Debora Spar said given the president’s news, the pairing was really exciting, “so we will have on stage the guy who spent all of his career pushing for the rights of gay couples to marry four days after the President has endorsed that.”
After the graduation, the president will attend a fundraiser targeting the gay and Latino community at the Rubin Museum of Art hosted by Ricky Martin.