Initiative brings students, president together

Students from the College of Social Work at The Ohio State University Students from the College of Social Work at The Ohio State University and NASW Ohio Chapter Associate Director Danielle Smith were offered the opportunity to meet with President Barack Obama and his senior staff at the White House in 2011.

Young Americans Colleen Dempsey, Emily Panzeri, Sarah Tarrant and Ohio Chapter Executive Director Danielle Smith found themselves on their way to Washington, D.C., last year after receiving an invitation to participate in the White House Young Americans initiative.

The program provides a starting platform for students and young people with a passion for a cause to have the opportunity to brainstorm with President Barack Obama and his senior staff, generate ideas for possible solutions and network with other participants.

Through organizing the roundtable discussion “The Student Café: Conversations for Change,” Ohio State University students Dempsey, Panzeri and Tarrant, along with Smith, were one of 350 roundtables from across the U.S. that submitted information for consideration to participate in the initiative. Only 10 roundtables were invited to Washington, and “Conversations for Change” made the list.

“It all happened very quickly,” said 23-year-old Dempsey. “After we submitted the toolkit for consideration to the initiative, it was quick moving.”

According to Tarrant, the group created “The Student Café: Conversations for Change” in an effort to bring students and lawmakers together to discuss the importance of social services and the impact of current budget reforms in Ohio.

“We saw this as a great way to bring the voice of social work to a public forum,” 29-year-old Panzeri said.

The Young Americans initiative allowed one representative from each of the 10 roundtables to participate in a meeting with Obama and his staff. Tarrant was the spokesperson for “Conversations for Change,” while the rest of the group received invitations to meet with staff and attend meetings at the NASW national office in Washington.

“We wanted to be fair in choosing who got to go into the White House to meet with the president,” Tarrant said. “So we did the number game of choosing a number between one and 10. I ended up picking the number three, which happened to be closest.”

The process for being accepted to the initiative is a competitive one, and the participants of “Conversations for Change” offer advice for anyone who wants to apply to future White House Young Americans initiatives.

  • “Just take an effort to get started,” said Smith. “Focus on an issue you’re passionate about and go from there.”
  • “Go out and do the work that you believe in, and that you have a passion in,” said Panzeri.
  • “Be informed of what is going on in the White House and what initiatives are out there,” Tarrant said. “Students and young people have more power than they think, and they do have a powerful voice when they come together.”
  • “For students, try to find an organization at your school that’s geared toward advocacy and encourage other students to join,” Smith said. “The No. 1 thing is to participate. You don’t have to have a huge group together in order to make a difference.”
  • “It’s important to put some work into making yourself an expert of the subject you choose,” Dempsey said. “Collaborate with people to share your ideas, and inform yourself on people that you can work well with in a roundtable.”
  • “The White House Young Americans initiative isn’t restricted to just students or recent grads,” Smith said. “So if there’s something you’re interested in advocating and seeing changes in, you can start locally to get a group together. Meet with local delegates and policyholders and see where it takes you.
  • “Most importantly, take initiative,” Tarrant said. “Although the whole process materialized over time, the concept for our group started out with Colleen (Dempsey) and I just chatting about it. People have a lot of great ideas, and they just have to act on them. And if you end up meeting the president, inform yourself beforehand on something he’s done that you like, and thank him for it. If you rely on just saying something on the spot, adrenaline and nerves may get the best of you. Go in prepared.”