UNC students had a variety of rewarding experiences over the summer, including meeting the U.S. president.

Whether they were meeting the president of the United States, educating former sex workers in Nepal or playing volleyball in Croatia, University of Northern Colorado students had a variety of rewarding experiences over the summer. Here are a few of their stories.

Pizza with the President

Editor's Note: When President Barrack Obama during a speech several months ago referred to the struggles that middle class families face when trying to pay for college, it meant a lot to senior Mathematical Sciences major Elizabeth Cooper. She was impressed that he cared about an issue she's struggling with, so she wrote him a letter. Here's what happened next, in her own words.

It was a simple, handwritten letter, and honestly, I didn't expect a response, but In March I received one and expected that to be the end. Then at the beginning of July, I got an email from a White House email address saying they wanted to follow up with me about my letter. After a few phone calls, I was invited to have dinner with a senior representative from the White House and four other letter writers during President Obama's upcoming trip to Denver.

We were told to meet at a small, out-of-the-way coffee shop downtown and we would head to dinner from there. When we all arrived and finished with introductions, a White House coordinator leaned in close and quietly told us, "OK. In about half an hour, we are going to walk over to a pizza place, and about half an hour after that, the president will be here to have dinner with you."

I was shocked and excited. I couldn't believe it. I had thought I was just going to be having dinner with a senator, or perhaps a congressman. It was surreal, even when we saw the car pull up and the president step out and start greeting people in the restaurant.

After what seemed like forever, he came over to those of us who had written to him. He shook each of our hands, asking what we had written about. Then he sat down and had pizza with us.

President Barrack Obama makes a point during a conservation with UNC student Elizabeth Cooper, right foreground, and other Coloradans who wrote letters to the president. Photo courtesy of the White House.

The president sat with us for about an hour, and the conversation ranged from early childhood education, to minimum wage, to federal loans, and of course, to financing college.

When we reached the topic of college, I had a few minutes of undivided attention from the president, which didn't feel like talking to one of the most powerful men in the world. It was like I was talking to another person who understood the struggle of paying for college, and he was trying to help with the issues we face. It was absolutely incredible.

We even shared frustration over the cost of textbooks. He was genuinely interested in everything we had to say. Talking with him was one of the most intense and exciting things I have ever done.

When the conversation drew to a close, we stood up to take a picture. He said goodbye to us individually and gave us all hugs. He told me to keep up with STEM and not to give up.

He said goodbye one more time, took a picture with the restaurant staff, then left to walk down the street and meet some of the people of Denver. It was hard to believe that only two hours before, I was just planning on eating with a senior representative from the White House.

You never know where a letter will take you.

A White House Experience

Elizabeth Cooper wasn't the only UNC student to have dinner with President Obama over the summer.

UNC junior Kaitlyn Smith's volunteer work with Special Olympics' Unified Generation initiative earned her an invitation to a July 31 White House dinner celebrating what the initiative is doing to activate young people to fight inactivity, intolerance and injustice in their schools and communities.

In addition to speaking with the president and First Lady Michelle Obama, Smith, a Human Services major, rubbed elbows with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Michelle Kwan, Maria Shriver and other celebrities. She and other attendees also were treated to a private performance by Katy Perry.

"Being invited to the White House will go down in the books as one of the most phenomenal experiences I have ever had—but it is not because I was surrounded by celebrities all night," Smith wrote in a blog post about the evening. "In fact, it is not even because I got to meet the president of the United States. This night was so special and memorable for me, because I experienced it with my best friend, Danielle Liebl, by my side. Nothing, not even meeting the president, could top how blessed and fortunate I am to have a friend like her."

Liebl, who has Down syndrome, has been Smith's best friend since they met in high school.

Filling a Need in Nepal

Meagan Cain, who's pursuing a master's degree in Public Health, spent six weeks this summer in Kathmandu, Nepal, leading health workshops through Raksha Nepal, a local non-profit organization that supports exploited women and children.

For a few hours at a time, she and approximately 30 former sex workers engaged in meaningful conversations about health, wellbeing and empowerment.

Cain said she was astonished and shocked by how little health education the women, who had been sold into prostitution, had received. Many of them had been commercial sex workers for years and were hearing about hygiene and health for the first time. Their stories were heartbreaking, incomprehensible, and sometimes, even hopeful.

"I met some truly amazing people there," Cain said. "Children, who should have lost all faith in humanity, praying for world peace. Women, sold into prostitution as mere teenagers, sharing their stories with courage. Through hard work, patience, and lots of saving up, I managed to travel halfway around the world to see issues that I had only read about. Although I had thought that my health lessons would change lives, this experience completely changed my life and reinforced the direction I am pursuing as a student of public health."

Meagan Cain, front left, poses with another volunteer and some of the former sex workers they taught about hygiene and health. Photo courtesy of Raksha Nepal.

Mission to South Africa

Michelle Ehgotz, a senior majoring in Psychology, spent six weeks in and around Cape Town, South Africa, as part of a missions trip through Campus Crusades for Christ.

While there, she taught at a vacation bible school for children, helped build a girl's dormitory at a local orphanage and met with students on the campus of the University of Western Cape.

She made good use of her weekend, going on a photo safari, attending a professional rugby match, taking in the epic views from the top of Table Mountain, visiting Cape Town's Waterfront Mall and cage-diving with great white sharks.

Ehgotz said the trip was an amazing opportunity made possible with a little help.

"The support from my family, church family, friends and lots of prayer made this trip possible," she said.

Volleyball in Croatia

In July, UNC volleyball player Kendra Cunningham traveled to Pula, Croatia, with some of the best female volleyball players in the United States to play in the 2014 European Global Challenge. It was the first time the Eaton, Colorado, native had been outside the U.S.

"I love volleyball and it's already taken me so many places," Cunningham, a Biological Sciences major, said. "For it to take me out of the country and to meet new people and experience new cultures is going to be amazing."

The tournament included teams from six European countries and 12 teams from the United States. Cunningham's team consisted of elite players who tried out at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

In a post-trip interview with the Greeley Tribune, Cunningham said that although the pace of life in the resort town on the Adriatic Sea was generally slower than in Greeley, driving was a bit scary.

"They go fast and they follow really close," she said.

Cunningham also spent a day in Venice, Italy, where she said the Gelato was "awesome."

A Fitting End to an Internship

Pheona Kelly completed her internship in UNC's American Sign Language-English Interpretation program over the summer by serving as a member of an interpreting team during Military Family Day on July 30 at Fort Jackson Army Base in Columbia, South Carolina.

According to Kelly, Military Family Day is the day before basic training graduation at an Army base and is the first time that family members and soldiers reunite after 10 weeks of training. Interpreters are provided in case there are family members who would benefit from the service.

Before the soldiers and their families reunited, Kelly interpreted as about 50 people from other countries took the American Citizens Oath, interpreted the Pledge of Allegiance and then had the "not so much of a pleasure" task of trying to keep up with an officer calling military ranks and names at a rapid-fire pace.

The event was held on a manicured field of grass with bleachers on only one side. On the other side of the field was a tree line. When it was time for the newly trained soldiers to enter, smoke bombs were set off.

Kelly said the family members' excitement was "off the charts" when they saw the soldiers emerge from the smoke, marching in formation.

"I was in the moment and probably smiled from ear to ear during the whole thing," Kelly said. "I felt well prepared, which allowed me to be more relaxed. I couldn't help but think that just as it was a "coming out" celebration for the soldiers, it was a "coming out" or culmination for me too.

"As I thought about these brave men and women taking the oath to serve and defend their country, I also thought about my whole-hearted commitment to serve the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. As the families raced to the field to hug their loved ones, my team and I watched with glassy eyes."

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