COMMENTARY: Rutgers students must be open to all stories


In response to “Is Obama really best Rutgers 250th commencement speaker?”:

Nicholas Demarest has brought up the controversial issue of President Obama’s pedigree, and whether or not this allows him to address Rutgers’ 250th graduating class. Demarest states, “This is not the experience that this president experienced. This is a man that graduated from two schools that award their students more privileges than almost every other school on the planet.”

Many students such as Demarest may be asking themselves similar questions. Is a graduate of two Ivy League schools — Columbia University and Harvard Law School — fit to deliver a commencement to a state university? Can such an individual give comprehensive advice and meaning to the experiences of Rutgers students?

What this argument fails to understand is that Barack Obama was anything but elitist before he assumed office in 2009.

First of all, since when has it become a sin to succeed in life?

And is Rutgers now going to measure the substance of a commencement speaker based off his or her alma mater?

The idea that accomplished individuals cannot inspire purpose or meaning from within others due to their Ivy League alma maters is ludicrous. Is it not the very purpose of universities to aim for progress and celebrate the achievements of others?

To many graduates of state universities such as Rutgers, the notion of Ivy League universities does carry an aura of privilege and spoon-fed opportunities to students. I do not deny this.

However, the overall premise of Demarest’s argument that President Obama cannot empathize with the student body at Rutgers is false. In fact, this man may be one of the best individuals to bring a sense of relevance to the Rutgers community. Obama has had significant experiences that can speak to the many experiences of state university students both during and after college.

Before transferring to Columbia, Obama and his family faced great financial difficulty paying his tuition at Occidental College. This struggle continued when his excellent academic record allowed him to transfer to Columbia. His first night at Columbia, he slept outside in an alley in New York City. And for the next two years, he lived off a tight budget and took showers at Columbia’s gym due to his home’s poorly built infrastructure.

Obama could have chosen any high-paying job he wanted to upon graduation from Columbia, but instead he chose to work in community-developing projects in the south side of Chicago. He worked on projects such as improving public housing and school reform, which not only shaped and humbled his experiences, but also allowed him to connect to struggling communities.

When Obama attended Harvard Law School, he, like thousands of other students, had to take out hefty student loans. He was only able to repay his loans 12 years agoIn 1988, he became the first African-American president to be elected of the Harvard Law Review. According to Demarest, a position like this would have entailed opportunities shoved down Obama’s throat. Obama could have gone to Wall Street to join the elitist world that many of his predecessors chose. But instead, Obama retuned to Chicago to continue working on community organizing and practice law as a civil rights lawyer.

Thus, Obama’s early life as a community organizer up until his days as a U.S. senator could provide valuable experience about service, leadership and commitment to one’s community to many Rutgers graduates.

Moreover, Demarest’s other point that Obama is disingenuous in his fight against wealth inequality because he "allows" universities such as Harvard to culminate an endowment worth billions of dollars is not only illogical but also hypocritical. I do believe it is immoral that "nearly 11 percent of colleges hold almost three-quarters of all endowment wealth among the 832 institutions that participate in the annual endowment study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers," according to

But spending of endowment by private universities is not something under the President’s control. It is instead an issue of how these universities spends their endowments and Congress can only correct it through legislation. But let us not be hypocritical. Rutgers fundraises continuously for its endowment as well — it just recently broke its $1 billion endowment mark at the end of the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

We need to remove ourselves from the notion that the school one attended dictates their connection to communities such as Rutgers. Obama is an individual who has faced issues that many of us have gone through: issues of racial identity, economic hardship, divorced parents, etc.

We are not saying that we admire and care more for what Ivy League graduates have to say, instead, we are saying that we are open to the stories of individuals who come from all walks of life. And who knows, as one of the most diverse universities in the country, Rutgers graduates may just learn that that they have more in common with the story of Barack Obama than any other commencement speaker.

Sahar Akbarzai is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in political science with a minor in economics.

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