A thousand student leaders from colleges across the country assembled in the nation’s capital yesterday to attend the 2nd annual Campus Progress National Student Conference, sponsored by liberal advocacy group the Center for American Progress. Keynote speaker U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the nation’s only Black senator, urged the enthusiastic student audience to find opportunities to serve the public good, rather than chase after high-paying jobs.
“It’s going to be easy to forget about this progressive political stuff or to just write a check or participate over the Internet and go chasing after the big house, the large salary and the nice suits and all the things that our money culture says that you should buy … I hope that you don’t get off that easy,” Obama said. “There’s nothing wrong with making money, but focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself, and in the end, I suspect, will leave you unfulfilled.”
Obama told students of his desire coming out of Columbia University in 1983 to seek a community service position, rather than the lucrative Wall Street job many of his classmates pined after. He packed up and moved to Chicago in 1985, taking a job with a small group of South Side churches to revitalize a community devastated by the closing of area steel plants. Fighting apathy in a community rife with crime and poverty was demoralizing at times, but fighting the good fight got him where he is today, he said.
“Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it’s not. It takes commitment, and you’ll experience plenty of failure along the way,” Obama said. “So the real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden you or shame you into inaction or whether instead you learn from it and choose to persevere.”
Obama also railed against what he called an “empathy deficit,” which he said blinds many to the plight of struggling members of society. He urged students to put themselves in the shoes of the despondent and downtrodden, adding that true personal fulfillment only comes through working towards the public good.
“At some level, your individual salvation depends on collective salvation. It’s only when you hitch yourself up to something bigger than yourself that you’re going to realize your true potential, and the world will benefit from that potential.”
Obama also urged his heavily Democratic audience to seek common ground with those from all political persuasions, rather than only looking after the needs and desires of their political base.
— By David Pluviose
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