Inside USD

Rocha: My Day with President Obama

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

University of San Diego student Joseph Rocha ‘11 provides a first-person account of his December trip to Washington D.C. — at the invitation of the White House — to be present for President Barack Obama’s bill signing to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell legislation.

As graduation approaches and many of us enter our final semester at the University of San Diego, it is easy to become overwhelmed while reflecting on the past and worrying about the future. While the years of my life prior to being accepted to USD were filled with abuse and misfortune I am proud to say that in the past two years, leading up to graduation, have been the best.

I was camping out during finals in the “Harry Potter Room” of all places, when a dream I hadn’t even dared to dream came true for me. I received an e-mail from the White House, requesting my attendance at the President’s bill signing to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that had previously banned gays from serving in the military. A silent reading room is a particularly inconvenient place to receive the biggest news of your life but in many ways, finding out while I was on campus was very special.

The first news camera that ever followed me in my fight to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was two years ago during my first month at USD. For an otherwise bashful person like myself, having Political Science Professor Gary Gray tell the class that CNN would be recording me during the lecture was an experience in itself that I won’t forget. Since then I have appeared on both national and international news and radio, written editorials for the Huffington Post and Washington Post, traveled the country, testified before politicians and federal justices and always expressing my love and appreciation to the University of San Diego.

I arrived at the bill signing nearly delirious from exhaustion and could have easily been talked into it all of it being a dream. It was heartwarming to be recognized in the room by so many true American heroes and civil rights activists. Nonetheless, I never for a minute stopped thinking of all the men and women, especially those who had since passed on and those currently serving in our wars who deserved to be present that morning and could not.

When I shook the President’s hand, I held what is called a “challenge coin” in my hand. A challenge coin is an award that units and high-ranking individuals in the Armed Forces and politics have that they can choose to give to individuals they feel have done an exceptional job. The specific one in my hand was given to me while I served in the Middle East by my mentor for being accepted to the United States Naval Academy Preparatory School. I said to the President, “Mr. President this coin belonged to Jennifer Valdivia who lost her life in our unit in Bahrain. She believed in me and she believed in you, sir. Thank you, Mr. President.”

At this moment, President Obama’s action took me  — and the Secret Service — completely by surprise. He took a look at the coin, scrunched his mouth, looked me in the eyes, patted me on the back, and brought me in for a hug. President Obama, the man dubbed nothing more than fancy words and elegant speeches, did not bother patronizing the pain he saw in me with words but rather decided to show me clear human compassion and respect.

I dare say that in Washington D.C. I did not meet the President of the United States, but instead I met Barack Hussein Obama, the young man who got himself into Harvard Law School with the hope to make the world a more just place for all people.

The challenges of being a USD undergraduate student and the unique honor of meeting our American President have taught me the invaluable lesson that the promotion of human dignity is worth everything.

— Joseph Rocha ‘11

Photo courtesy of Rick McKay, White House Photo Office

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