Jeorgie Hicks says the challenges facing South Carolina’s at-risk youth give them a one-in-four shot of graduating high school.
“I wanted an opportunity to help eliminate that statistic,” said Hicks, a 25-year-old Benedict College graduate who said it will be “an honor” to attend a town hall-meeting with President Barack Obama at his alma mater Friday.
Not all South Carolinians are so pleased with the president’s return to the Palmetto State for the first time since he won the state’s 2008 Democratic primary.
“We’ll probably be trolling him on Twitter,” said Grace Kerley, president of the University of South Carolina College Republicans.
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Obama’s visit comes just two days after the release of a Winthrop Poll showing that more than half of South Carolinians – a deep-red state – disapprove of the Democrat’s performance.
Obama can expect some pushback during his visit, but not any formal protests, said Kerley, a 20-year-old public relations student. “We don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to go out there and give him anything other than a warm welcome.”
‘In Columbia, we face a challenge’
Representatives from youth leadership groups – including the Urban League, Upward Bound and City Year – have been invited to the president’s 2:15 p.m. speech at Benedict.
Benedict grad Hicks hopes to tell the president, who plans to talk about youth leadership at the historically black college, that Columbia needs more volunteers.
Hicks mentors at-risk students in Columbia as a volunteer with AmeriCorps’ City Year program. The students he helps are a lot like he was when he was younger, he said.
A lot of them do not have the guidance they need to navigate the “challenges and temptations” that can throw them off track.
“Here in Columbia, we face a challenge” – more children in need of help than there are mentors to help them, Hicks said, adding he hopes to relay that message to the president.
‘Proud of the people’
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley will deliver the official welcome to South Carolina to the president, meeting him at the airport when Air Force One lands in Columbia just before noon.
“We are proud of the people and the successes of our state and look forward to President Obama seeing and experiencing those successes first-hand,” Haley said in a statement.
Other Republicans were less diplomatic Thursday.
The fact Obama has not been back to South Carolina since 2008 is shocking, said S.C. GOP chairman Matt Moore.
“Each president has his or her priorities, and I think they’re reflected in his absence,” Moore said. “South Carolina is a place where his policies are not warmly received.”
Moore said Obama’s address to Benedict students should answer questions about issues facing young Americans, including, “Why is the American Dream so far out of reach for young people?”
“They should absolutely ask him about why young people are faced with these economic circumstances under the Obama Administration,” she said.
‘Put on the sidelines’
For some Columbia residents, however, Obama’s visit is a welcome chance to reconnect with the president.
J.T. McLawhorn, president of the Columbia Urban League, said the president’s visit will have a “positive impact” on S.C. residents, “particularly those who worked so hard on his primary election.”
Obama “basically had an army” working to help him win the 2008 Democratic Primary. Then, he vanished. “Somehow people felt they were put on the sidelines,” McLawhorn said.
That could be because Obama has been criticized harshly in public by a few South Carolinians, McLawhorn added.
Obama’s Friday visit “means, in essence, that we’ve turned a corner on that (criticism), and the president understands that those harsh statements are not representative of all people in South Carolina,” McLawhorn said, adding he hopes the president talks about his plans for “closing the economic gap.”
‘Anticipating this day all week’
Jahmaun Sessions, a senior studying political science at the University of South Carolina, said the opportunity to meet the president Friday is going to be “amazing.”
“I've been anticipating this day all week,” the Anderson native said.
As an African-American interested in activism and, one day, running for office, Sessions said he wants to ask the president why he moved from grassroots activism to politics.
Sessions also said he might ask Obama why it took him seven years to return to South Carolina.
But, Sessions added, he understands the president’s absence. “His chances of winning the electoral votes here was slim to none.”