The eve of St. Patrick’s Day usually prompts questions like, “Do you want to spend the night at Casey’s Irish Bar & Grille or Molly Malone’s?” However, during the course of the 2009 recession, 20-something’s like Jennifer Stiegert asked, “Why is it that I have $150,000 in law school loans and all I have is a J.D and no job?” This is because Stiegert is among the first 1,000 people who waited in line overnight at the Orange County Fair Grounds parking lot for a chance to receive a ticket to President Barack Obama’s town hall meeting in Costa Mesa on March 18.
Many of the Obama supporters who camped out at the fairgrounds were unemployed, employed part-time or were students. Four out of the five adults who waited in line with me were unemployed. Three had B.A. degrees from UCLA, while one recently received her law degree from New York University. These graduates withstood the 14-hour waiting period with warm thermoses of coffee, blankets and conversations about the types of questions they had for their commander-in-chief. Most of the students wanted to ask Obama questions about how this current fiscal crisis would affect their opportunity to live within their means.
Steigert told one NBC reporter, “Those of us that have a large amount of college debt are dependent on consumer credit and credit card companies have power to reduce our credit card limit even below our current balance, which will lower our credit score and cause our variable percentage rates to double or triple. What plans does Obama have for us who graduated from professional schools and cannot find a job? What is the government going to do to prevent the MBAs, Ph.D.s and J.D.s from having our credit scores lowered to 350?”
Student concerns were not the only questions that people in line had for Obama. An Orange County nurse wanted to know how a job she thought was the most secure job in the medical industry had her hours at her hospital slashed from 45 to 20 hours a week. Despite concerns about job security, many people were amazed that they would have the opportunity to see their commander-in-chief in such an intimate setting.
Twenty-eight years after Costa Mesa had been the locale for the grassroots acquisition of Republican power with Ronald Reagan’s presidential win, Republican Trung Le explained that he was there to support Obama out of respect. Le, a payday loan officer in Westminster, said that when he learned from The Orange County Register that Obama would be speaking in the area, he had to attend because this event was “History making … I have to support him 110 percent, especially in these times.”
I was astonished to know that I had spent over 14 hours with Le without getting in a disagreement. Hugo Santacruz, a recent UCLA graduate in psychology, was apparently Le’s only liberal friend and part of the reason Le turned out.
11:00 a.m. marked the hour in which tickets were finally distributed. Drowsy and speechless, most line-dwellers were finally glad to be released from a single file line into their cars and soon to their beds. I wanted to ask President Barack Obama what his proposed timeline or thoughts were for the war in Afghanistan, and besides jobs in renewable energy, how do upcoming American college students train for the workforce of the 21st century? And how did Michelle Obama get into and through Harvard Law with an education from the Southside of Chicago? But for now I could only think about sleep when I got home.
Leaving for the event, I took my camera, my California driver’s license, my cell phone and my friend Brandy and fellow graduate student Mike. We waited for hours for the event to start at three. A marine sergeant led the audience to recite the pledge of allegiance; a rabbi said a prayer and a local surveyor/construction manager welcomed the 44th president of the United States. Obama thanked everyone for coming out and condemned the fact that American International Group employees were going to take home lavish bonuses despite the country’s $1.3 trillion deficit.
The crowd was enthralled to hear him say, “It’s my responsibility to fix this mess, even though I didn’t make it.”
I also believed him when he said, “We are not only going to get out of this, we are going to be stronger when we get to the other side.” Perhaps I have to believe that because I know hope only goes so far, but strength and the will to succeed goes much farther.
Obama chose to answer the questions of his audience in a random boy-girl manner. He was prompted by questions from a community bank CPA, a social advocate for immigration and a felon looking for work, but the most heart-wrenching question was asked by a Santa Ana school teacher who had just received a reduction in force notice, often known as a pink slip. Obama assured her that the stimulus package, also known as the Economic Recovery Act, would swing in full effect so that teachers would have better retention rates and smaller class sizes. Although he didn’t answer her question directly, the audience felt that slow change was going to come. I furiously waved my hand so that President Obama would choose me as his next town representative, but even though I moved to where the microphone volunteers were located, it never happened. Obama closed with a message of hope and forthcoming action, but I still wanted to know how his wife became successful.
I moved to the front of the podium and as crowds of people begged him to sign their copies of his book, I handed him my old Claremont Graduate University business card. I wrote the words, “How did your wife get to be successful?” on the back of the card; he read it and gave me a hug. I told him that I wanted to write history because it was dignified and scholarly, but that I might not finish my journey because I did not have the pocketbook to afford its expense. I also told him that I needed to strengthen my writing and my scholarship fund and he said you’ll get there even if it’s working for Loretta Sanchez. I smiled half-heartily and hoped that he would give my business card to his wife, whom I think could relate to my experience. I doubt it, but with the drive in my heart and the willingness to learn to be the best I can be, I will get there someday.
Jessica Ramirez is a graduate student in the history department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.