EDITOR’S NOTE: This semester WTVR.com has partnered with VCU’s School of Mass Communications “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project. Those VCU students reported the following story.
By Audra Shreve and Allie Landry (Special to WTVR.com)
RICHMOND, Va. – What does VCU student Sai Iyer have in common with Hollywood actress Eva Longoria, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin? He is one of 35 co-chairs in the nation for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
“I’m the only student on there. At first, it was an unnerving experience,” said Iyer, who is a senior in mass communications, international as well as religious studies at VCU. “At the same time, I recognized the need for a young person to be on there, to be an advocate for our generation, for how a lot of these issues are going to affect us.”
At 22, Iyer is Obama’s youngest campaign co-chair, but he’s had considerable experience to prepare himself to work as a face and voice for the campaign. In 2008, Iyer worked as a full-time volunteer for the Obama campaign at the grass-roots level. Last fall, he landed an internship at the White House, working in administration and management, which gave him insight into where the president stands on the issues driving this year’s election.
But even with his experience and dedication, Iyer is still simply a student and lacks the celebrity status of many on the list. Including Iyer, only six of the 35 co-chairs are Obama for America volunteers.
“They each share the president’s vision for a future where every American can have a fair shot at success, where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded,” said Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina in a statement.
Fair opportunity for all Americans is something Iyer advocates with deep passion.
“That will allow somebody to realize what’s best in them, or at least give them the opportunity to do that,” Iyer said. “We’re not talking right to success, we’re just talking about the ability to access opportunity.”
Dennis Williams, a VCU senior and a close friend of Iyer’s, said that’s something Iyer has taught him as well.
“In this nation with education, dedication, and hard work, you can do something important,” Williams said. “He shows that we can improve our community and our nation.”
That’s a far-reaching influence for someone who says he isn’t even interested in the game of politics. For Iyer, it’s less about the race and more about the man running. After listening to Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Iyer realized he could relate. Like the President, Iyer has an immigrant background.
Iyer shared his connection to the President and his motivation to get involved in the election in a speech he recently gave at the Virginia Young Democrats Convention hosted at VCU. He spoke of the necessity of youth participation in the upcoming election and reminded those members to stay “awake, alert, and active.”
While Iyer’s focus is to mobilize the youth vote, he projects the same values onto the adults he interacts with on a day-to-day basis. Joseph Lyons, associate director of the VCU campus career center said Iyer, who works there, motivates him to keep up with current events.
“He’s changed in me that I should be even more aware of my surroundings, my environment, and my government,” Lyons said.
Dr. Mark Wood, a religious studies professor at VCU and another close mentor of Iyer, thinks his involvement and concern for the people around him is what makes him a strong representative of VCU, which is also known for its commitment to appreciating diversity.
“I know he’s got friends from every part of the world and every background, and is concerned about all,” Wood said. “He’s very concerned about society and the general welfare of the public. I think that also reflects well on the mission of VCU to be engaged and to make a positive difference in the society beyond higher education.”
Like many others, Wood has high expectations for Iyer. He said Iyer went above and beyond his duty as a teaching assistant for him.
“We got into debates about various issues in class,” said Wood. “And I think that turned out to be very helpful for students to see us engaged in issues on religion and racism.”
This experience in the classroom has led Iyer to his next endeavor, teaching secondary English in Detroit as a part of “Teach for America.” He will train for the job while he works on the campaign. Beyond that, he has no set plans for the future, but he knows he wants to dedicate his time to public service and upward mobility.
“I think the sky’s the limit for Sai,” Lyons said. “But I know whatever capacity Sai is working in, it’s going to be giving back, training and educating others. That’s going to be his main focus.”
When asked whether he might consider running for office himself in the future, Iyer laughed and said, “I’m only 22.”
This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between WTVR.com and VCU’s School of Mass Communications.