President Barack Obama’s visit to Benedict College on Friday will bring attention to the private Columbia school and create memories for its 2,444 students.
“This probably will be one of the biggest moments of my life,” said Prathon Williams, a junior electrical engineering major from Fayetteville, N.C.
Obama is making his first trip to South Carolina since winning the state’s Democratic presidential primary in 2008.
Details of the president’s Friday visit to Columbia have not been released by the White House.
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But Obama is expected to talk about youth leadership during his visit to the historically black college, which comes a day before the president heads to Selma, Ala., for the 50th anniversary of the infamous, bloody voting-rights march. Representatives from youth leadership groups — including the Urban League, Upward Bound and City Year — have been invited to the president’s speech at Benedict, officials said.
“It’s a very big deal,” Benedict President David Swinton said. “This is a historic event. I hope it means a lot to our prestige and credibility.”
Swinton said he is pleased the president’s visit will draw attention to a historically black college. “We’re not trying to be Harvard. We’re trying to be who we are — a school where disadvantaged African-Americans who have been excluded can fully participate (in college),” Swinton said. “I hope he thinks that’s important.”
Benedict student Amber Myers is getting a second chance to see Obama.
The senior finance major first saw Obama when she was a hig-school student in Kingstree, two days before the then-U.S. senator from Illinois trounced Hillary Clinton in the state’s 2008 primary.
“Everybody is talking about this on Facebook,” Myers said. “I’m so excited. This puts us on the map.”
Jaron Vanderhall, a junior from Dillon, said Obama’s visit is something students will talk about for years.
His Benedict classmates respect the nation’s first African-American president, the early childhood education major said. “I admire his initiative and drive.”
Workers were busy preparing Benedict’s Mays Arena Tuesday for Obama’s speech at the facility Friday. The number of people who have been invited to attend the speech has not been disclosed, but the arena can hold 3,500 for basketball games.
Some classes, held on floors above the arena, will have to move Friday. Meanwhile, administrators are working on how to accommodate more than 100 reporters and TV crews who plan on covering Obama’s visit.
Benedict is spending $1,000 on a new 20-foot-by-5-foot banner with the school’s name, web address and logo to go behind the president, spokeswoman Kymm Hunter said. The current banner is too shiny for TV lights.
Obama’s trip to Benedict means three downtown Columbia colleges will have been visited by Washington’s top two politicians in less than a year.
Vice President Joe Biden gave May’s commencement address at the University of South Carolina and headlined a voter rally at Allen University, another historically black private college, in October.
“I thought it would be a good balancing act (to include Benedict),” said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, the House’s third-highest-ranking Democrat and an alum of S.C. State University, a historically black school.
Clyburn, who announced Obama’s visit Sunday, gave S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison credit for helping land the president’s visit.
In quarterly meetings of state party leaders and the White House, Harrison said he kept asking when the president would visit the Palmetto State. “I became the squeaky wheel.”
Harrison and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said they were not bothered by Obama’s seven-year absence from South Carolina. “He’ll show all these young people the potential they have in their lives,” Benjamin said.
Clyburn said Obama took so long to return to the Palmetto State as president because of some remarks by South Carolinians about him and his family, including one that compared first lady Michelle Obama to a monkey.
“Those comments made his staff nervous,” Clyburn said.
The timing of the Selma anniversary works well for Obama’s visit with youth leaders at Benedict, Harrison said.
“Young people played such a big role in the civil rights movement,” Harrison said. “They need to keep playing a role now.”
Benedict junior Williams likes that he gets a chance to hear from a president who, he says, has worked hard to better the nation’s youth and health care.
“He’s stuck to his guns,” Williams said. “He’s standing up for us.”