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A Call from the White House

Article by Heidi Butler, photo by Patti Canavan
May 07, 2012

How many people can say they've been on the phone with the President of the United States?  Eric Rodriguez and Tim Semonich can.

John Callahan, the mayor of Bethlehem, invited the two student senators from Northampton Eric Rodriguez and Tim SemonichCommunity College to his office on May 7 to participate in a live conference call with President Barack Obama, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Munoz, and Valerie B. Jarrett, a Senior White House advisor.

The eight students who gathered around the speaker phone in the conference room in City Hall with the mayor also included representatives from Lehigh University and Moravian and Muhlenberg colleges.  Student leaders from other college and universities across the country participated from other locations.

With the U.S. Senate scheduled to vote the next day on a bill that would prevent the interest rates on federal student loans from doubling on July 1, Obama encouraged the students to get on Facebook and Twitter and to use the hashtag #DontDoubleMyRate to show their support for the legislation. 

Although Republicans and Democrats have both expressed support for freezing the interest rate, so far they have not been able to agree on how the extension of the current rate should be financed.

Before the President got on the line, Munoz reminded the students of something that most of them have heard on the news - or know from personal experience -  that for the first time in history Americans owe more in student loans than in credit card debt.  Unless Congress takes action soon, she said, more than 7 million college students could owe an average of an additional $1,000 each. 

At the end of the call, students had the opportunity to ask questions. The group from Bethlehem was ready, and they got their chance, right after students from Duke University. 

The mayor seized the moment. In introducing the students, he noted that some of them were from Lehigh University, the home of the team that upset Duke in the first round of this year's NCAA basketball tournament.  "Sorry, Duke," he joked.

The students' question was not a joke.  They asked what the Obama administration is doing to create jobs, so that they can put their education to work when they graduate.  The staff pointed to the job growth that has occurred in the last eight months and talked about the President's plan to invest in infrastructure.

Semonich, who has just been elected to a second term as president of Northampton's Student Senate, said the call was not exactly non-partisan.  "It was obviously a Democratic initiative to get young people reenergized and involved in the conversation," he said, "but I think that's a great thing.  The younger generation has a soft voice.  We need to educate ourselves and be louder."

After the call ended, Semonich and Rodriguez volunteered to take the lead in drafting an op ed piece that the student leaders from all the area colleges who participated  plan to submit to local newspapers to draw further attention to the importance of keeping student loan rates affordable.

 

 


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