Stanford students reflect on their meeting with President Obama

Ten Stanford undergraduates described President Barack Obama as personable and genuine as he discussed a wide range of global interests with them during a recent private meeting on campus.

The February day President Barack Obama gave the keynote address at the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection is the day a small group of Stanford students will long remember as the afternoon they met the president.

Not only met the president of the United States, but talked to him about a range of global issues, including cybersecurity, the situation in Syria, the civilian-military divide and the new terrorism advisory system. 

Vicki Niu, the lone freshman among the 10 students at the private meeting with the president, said Obama began the discussion by asking the students which aspect of cybersecurity – policy or technology – had drawn them to the field of study.

Niu told the president that she wanted to combine an interest in computer science with a passion for social impact.

“When he was speaking to us, it was clear that he really valued our opinions and wanted to answer questions in the way most helpful to us,” she said. “He kept the mood light, making jokes, and it was great to see the genuine, funny and compassionate person behind all of the public appearances and policy decisions.”

The group also included a sophomore studying energy resources engineering and history, a junior studying computer science, and seven seniors, including three students who are writing honors theses as fellows at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).

When Obama opened up the floor to questions on any topic, Trey Deitch, a senior majoring in computer science, asked the president about technology policy.

Career choice validated

“I am working toward a career in computer security, and to know that the president cares about my chosen path is very validating,” he said. “Computer security doesn’t usually feel like the flashiest career choice. But that Friday it did.”

The topic turned to Syria when the president noticed that Sarah Kunis, a CISAC honors student, had brought along a copy of U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power’s book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

“I asked why we are not intervening in Syria and why we are not fulfilling our Right to Protect (R2P) obligation,” she said. “President Obama said that the situation there was heartbreaking and that everyone looked at the problem to figure out what we should do to stop the suffering, while evaluating our interests. We cannot intervene without having a plan for the future – and we can’t overthrow governments.”

The students, who sat in the front rows of Memorial Auditorium for Obama’s speech, had been chosen for a private discussion with senior White House officials during the summit, a daylong, invitation-only event featuring senior business, government and academic officials. They didn’t know which White House officials would be at the meeting. And they had no idea the president would be joining them.

An agent with the U.S. Secret Service escorted them into a conference room in the auditorium, where they found a U-shaped table with place cards. All of the students noticed the empty seat – without a place card – at the head of the table.

They were soon joined by Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president; Lisa Monaco, who advises the president on counterterrorism; and Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser.

Obama takes students by surprise

Jarrett quickly engaged the students in a conversation about ending sexual assault on campus. She initiated a round of introductions. Minutes later, Obama, in his shirtsleeves, walked into the room.

“We rose to our feet and some students’ jaws even dropped,” said Kaitlyn Benitez-Strine, a senior majoring in symbolic systems and Army ROTC cadet who plans to become a military intelligence officer after earning a master’s degree in communication at Stanford.

When Benitez-Strine told the president she would be conducting empathy research in the Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory for her master’s degree, Obama joked that Congress could benefit from her work.

“It was an amazing, unforgettable experience,” Benitez-Strine said. “The president balanced jokes with significant, weighty matters in an elegant manner – no script at all.”

Brad Girardeau, a computer science major who is studying for a master’s degree in computer and network security, said the whole experience – the summit, meeting White House officials and talking to Obama – was one he would never forget.

“I was inspired to think more about opportunities for public service within the government,” Girardeau said.

Rio LaVigne, a senior majoring in math who has conducted research in cryptology at Stanford, likened the meeting to a humanities class discussion section in which everyone had done the reading and was asking intelligent questions.

“The main difference was the ‘section leader’ was the president of the United States, and that Obama, unlike a section leader, completely led the discussion,” she said. “It was impressive to listen to how well-informed this small group of students was, and impressive to hear Obama talk about so many issues.”

Wyatt Brody Horan, a sophomore majoring in energy resources engineering and history, told the president he decided to become a teacher after hearing Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address. During the speech, Obama talked about the need for better educational opportunities.
“I’ll never forget sitting around the kitchen with my family as Obama turned directly to the camera and asked any young American with an interest in education to become a teacher,” Horan said.
“I felt like I had been given a mission. His remarks stay with me today and shape my commitment to pursuing a career in teaching. I told the president that if he wants to encourage young Americans to pursue careers in cybersecurity, he should appeal directly to them. The president smiled, thanked me for my response and told me that he had made a mental note to include a request of students in a future speech.”

 During the meeting, Rollins Stallworth, a Stanford football player who is majoring in management science and engineering, thanked the president for the shout-out he gave the team during his speech. Obama had said that “according to one study, if all of the companies traced back to Stanford graduates formed their own nation, you’d be one of the largest economies in the world and have a pretty good football team as well.”

After the meeting, Obama asked Stallworth about his plans for next year.

Stallworth, who is interested in the management and risk mitigation side of cybersecurity and national security, told the president he would be playing for the team as a fifth year senior, and starting a master’s degree program. Obama then asked him questions about next year’s football season.

Stallworth said he was more comfortable and relaxed at the end of the meeting than when the president first walked into the room, because Obama was so personable.

Afterward, Stallworth said, he described Obama to all of his friends as “one of your best friend’s dads who you have known forever and love to hang out with.”

Joshua Alvarez, a 2012 Stanford graduate and former CISAC honors student, contributed to this report.