Pizza with Obama

Sharing a Slice with the President

Senior math major’s letter about financing college leads to dinner meeting
Senior Mathematical Sciences major Elizabeth Cooper graduates this spring

It was a simple, handwritten letter to President Obama in response to his State of the
Union address when he mentioned the struggles middle-class families face. Honestly, I didn’t expect a response.

But in March 2014 I received one and expected that to be the end. Then at the beginning of July, an email from a White House address requested a 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 met at a small, out-of-the-way coffee shop downtown. When we 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.”

Over pizza, 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.

In my letter, I told the president that I felt like the middle class is “not significant enough to be addressed.” My mind-set when I wrote it stemmed from my own financial challenges despite being employed year-round and taking on overtime shifts. I’m not eligible for federal funding I apply for each year because the formula states that my parents should be able to contribute a significant amount to my college education. With a sister also in college, that’s not possible in my situation.

When we reached the topic of college, I had a few minutes of undivided attention from the president, who took my letter to heart and heard what I said about the challenges I face with having to pay for college on my own. Our conversation didn’t feel like I was 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. NV

Elizabeth Cooper aspires to work with physicists and engineers on their projects. “I would love to work with NASA and with their teams to help send people to space, and generally advance human understanding of the world,” she says. She will explore the possibility of setting up a scholarship fund aimed at middle-class students who work while in college. “I don’t want to see people like me having to struggle like this in the future,” she says. “Worrying about finances makes it so much more difficult to focus on school. I know many people face this struggle, and I want to help as many of them as I can.”

UNC students work more

Left: Cooper, right, receives the surprise of her life when the senior White House official she expects to meet turns out to be President Obama.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Above: Approximately two-thirds of graduating seniors report that they worked for pay while in college.

Slightly more than one-quarter of these students are working more than 20 hours per week.

UNC students report working significantly more hours than students at similar universities. In addition, they are more likely to contribute financial resources to their families and to contribute more of their own resources to funding their education.

Source: UNC Self-Study Report to Higher Learning Commission 2015