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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Carolina comes together to welcome Obama

The atmosphere inside Carmichael Arena pulsated with anticipation on April 24 as the crowd of some 8,000 waited for President Barack Obama to take the stage.

Students arrived en masse, along with faculty, staff and community members, all eager to witness a sitting president visit campus – and become a part of history.

At 9 a.m., four hours before Obama spoke, a line of people waiting for the doors to open snaked across Hooker Field past the School of Government, then down Country Club Road to Ridge Road and past the School of Law, all the way to Boshamer Stadium. Within a few minutes, the end of the line had become the middle as more and more people joined.

Murphy Donohue, a first-year student from Orlando, Fla., got in line at 5:30 a.m. – early enough to watch security being set up and to be interviewed by a local TV reporter.

It was a cool experience,” Donohue said. “Not only did I want to see the president, but I think he’s speaking on a very important issue. This is our future. The policies being made today are affecting us tomorrow.”

Brian Min, a junior from Raleigh began his wait at 4:30 a.m.

“It was cold, and my friends and I weren’t prepared for it at all,” he said. “We tried to study but instead we talked and made friends with other people who were waiting.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s ridiculous, in a positive way, to have Obama, Jimmy Fallon and the Dave Matthews Band on campus before classes end. It’s a great way to end the school year.”

Once inside the arena, the excitement continued to build as the crowd began chanting Tar Heels after the wave went around the arena a few times.

Also in the crowd were fencing coach Ron Miller and two of his assistant coaches, Josh Webb and Matt Jednak.

The three coaches wore special badges. Their offices are in Carmichael, so they needed the identification to get around inside the building. But the shortest of walks was not the only reason they came to see the president speak.

“The subject of the speech is important to all of us,” Miller said. “We are here for the students on our fencing team. Not all of them are on scholarships, so some have to have loans. It’s a very important issue.”

Webb said, “We brought them with us today,” as he pointed to the group of students in Carolina Fencing sweatshirts seated on the floor a full two hours before the speech was to begin.

David Owens, Gladys H. Coates Distinguished Professor in the School of Government, said it was exciting to see so many people with an interest in coming out to hear the president speak about public policy issues.

“There are lots of students here, staff and faculty, and a lot of public servants here, too,” he said. “It’s a big commitment of time to come and listen, but it’s only the seventh time a sitting president has visited UNC.”

Then, shortly after 1 p.m., Chancellor Holden Thorp revved up the crowd with rousing, yet brief, comments in which he noted the rare opportunity for Carolina to host a sitting president. He said that Carolina, where public higher education was invented 200 years ago, was “the right place” for Obama to talk about keeping college affordable.

Dominique Garland, a senior from Greensboro majoring in elementary education, introduced Obama, but not before explaining what the availability of student loans and financial aid had meant to her.

And then, dressed causally in a white shirt rolled up at the sleeves, the president bounded to the stage, greeted by thunderous applause. He gave Garland a hug.

“Thank you!”

Applause.

“Hello, North Carolina!”

More applause.

“What’s up, Tar Heels?”

More applause.

“Now, first of all, I want to thank Dominique for that unbelievable introduction. Wasn’t she good? You can tell she will be an outstanding teacher.”

Even before the applause could start, an audience member shouted, “I love you, President Obama!”

“I love you back,” Obama said. “I love North Carolina. Every time I come down to this state I just love it that much more. I said a while back, the thing about North Carolina is even the folks who don’t vote for me are nice to me. I can’t say that about every place.”

Juniors Allie Campbell and Shannon Cobb did not have the chance to see the president in person, but they made the most of what they could see.

“It’s OK,” Campbell said. “We still got to experience the excitement. We watched the line of cars that escorted him to Carmichael.”

Later, they gathered with a crowd of students around a television in Davis Library to hear Obama’s speech.

“It was just so much fun to have him here,” Campbell said.

Cobb added, “No matter who you support, it is cool to have the president on your college campus. It is one of those things you are going to tell your kids.”

For additional information about Obama’s speech, see www.unc.edu/spotlight/Obama-visit. For a full transcript of the speech, see www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/04/24/remarks-president-college-affordability-university-north-carolina.

Seniors line up to receive their tickets for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," where President Obama was a guest at a special taping in Memorial Hall that immediately followed his policy speech.