Realizing Personal and Professional Growth at the Obama Town Hall Berlin

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Work Exchanges

By Paul Runcan, CIEE Work & Travel USA and Civic Leadership Summit alum, CIEE Exchange Ambassador Grants recipient 

Sometime in early April, I received an email that turned my world upside down. The email was from the ever-supportive people from CIEE, offering me unique, yet I felt undeserved, opportunitiy. I found out that CIEE had nominated a select group of their Work & Travel USA alumni to take part in the Obama Foundation Town Hall meeting in Berlin.  Naturally, I was ecstatic. This seems like a once in a lifetime opportunity. However, things ended up even better.  I received another email from the Foundation, inviting me (and Grese, one of the other amazing CIEE alum that attended) to take part in a small round table discussion right before the town hall meeting. The round table turned out to be 20 young town hall meeting participants, each spearheading a variety of inspiring projects in their communities. Some supported artistic communities, others looked to reduce food waste, others were fighting against climate change, and some were politicians. What brought them all together, and not just those at the round table, but all those who took part in the town hall meeting, was that they are young emerging leaders, who strive to shape a better tomorrow, our tomorrow. We discussed the goals of the Obama Foundation, and then were divided into smaller groups and given assignments as per our fields of interest. My group spoke against quick and easy fixes in politics, against populism, and argued on the characteristics that should define today’s political decision maker.

Photo for blog post Realizing Personal and Professional Growth at the Obama Town Hall Berlin

Then came the town hall meeting itself. Right as the first panel was ending, Foundation staff called us out and took us to a different room. They had mentioned during the round table that President Obama wanted to meet us, but honestly, my mind couldn’t (and still can’t) wrap itself around the idea that we were about to meet the 44th President of the United States. But suddenly, it was happening, the President walked in, casual as ever, smiled at us, shook our hands and we all introduced ourselves. He spoke to us, gave us words of encouragement on our work, told us his story, and answered our questions. I’ll admit that I may not have always agreed with his policies, however both during his time in office, and after, I found him to be more than a politician. He is a statesman, and after having met him, this belief has only been reinforced. I remember thinking about the barrier I usually felt when talking to political figures, a distance between them and the people. It stuck with me simply because, even with all the security in the room, there was anything but distance between him and us. I could talk for hours and hours about the experience, but I’m pretty sure that even then, I couldn’t fully convey it.

Photo for blog post Realizing Personal and Professional Growth at the Obama Town Hall Berlin

Once we returned to the meeting hall, President Obama was introduced, walked on stage, and what followed was an hour and a half of pure inspiration. I can’t help but mention the moment I froze in my seat, when the President spoke about meeting young leaders just before the meeting, who are working to bring about positive change, and gave shoutouts to a few, including myself. Being acknowledged by a leader I admire was breathtaking, and further convinced me that I’m on the right path, which was something I had called into question a number of times before. I saw in him the type of leader I want to become, but probably more importantly, the kind of person I want to be. Overall, I left Berlin feeling fulfilled, feeling that I’ve learned, and I’ve grown a lot in the span of just a few days. I truly hope I’ll have another chance to meet 

I cannot help but mention the awesome CIEE people who met up in Berlin: Anna (who addressed the first question to President Obama), Ann, Conor, Céline, Elena, Grese, and of course CIEE’s very own Matt Smith. If you are reading this, all of you have inspired me, and I hope we will meet again soon. I feel that in the past few months I have grown both professionally and personally, far more than I would have in any other instance. I have CIEE to thank for that first, but also the Obama Foundation as well as the numerous people who have made these inspiring experiences possible. I am eternally grateful.

Click here to learn more about the Obama Town Hall in Berlin.