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Student attends White House summit

Originally published in the October 8, 2010 issue

Many students attend conferences for a variety of organizations, but very few of them manage to make it to the White House.

Thomas Aguilar, a junior engineering major, attended the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, being convened by Jill Biden.

The summit hopes to place a focus on the importance of community colleges in President Barack Obama’s goal to lead the world in the highest number of college-educated workers in the world by 2020.

“It was surreal,” Aguliar said. “I’m not star struck very often. I was about ten feet away from Obama speaking. It was just an honor to be there, and hopefully this summit can make a difference.”

Aguilar attended the summit to speak on veteran graduate rates in community college, speaking with Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen as well as a group of education experts and Cabinet members.

“We were asked tons of questions and it felt good to be able to contribute,” Aguilar said. “It seemed to me that our contributions are really helping to lay the groundwork for different organizations to come together and improve the entire community college experience.”

Aguilar is uniquely qualified to attend such a summit.

After three deployments and a total of five years of active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he returned to the U.S. and drove a truck. That’s when his life began to come into perspective.

“I came back and I went into trucking,” Aguilar said. “I spent a lot of time in solitude and so I spent a lot of time putting things into perspective. I was left with a resounding feeling of gratefulness.”

Aguilar went on to give back to people in his community and in his school. He coordinated Walk to Sudan, an organization that raised nearly $100,000 to build an education center in honor of the Lost Boys, child soldiers drafted by that country’s war.

He was also the Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity, translating program materials into Spanish. In addition to his humanitarian work, he was also elected as a student representative to serve on the Illinois Central College Board of Trustees.

The summit has installed some confidence in Aguilar for the future both of community college as well as in the system of higher education as a whole.

“I gained a lot more hope,” he said. “I feel optimistic about this administration’s focus. It was great to see all of the different offices working together. American colleges are number 12 in the world for graduation rates. Hopefully they will be able to turn that direction around.”