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GSU student visits White House to discuss reproductive rights

On a warmer-than usual October morning, Governors State University Student Senate President Marquis Parks joined 75 other student leaders at the White House, where Vice President Kamala Harris convened a meeting to discuss the fight to protect reproductive rights.

“It was an incredible experience,” said Parks, a Theatre and Performance Studies major who started fanning himself as he recalled the temperature that day. “It was so hot and we were all sweating,” he said, noting a two-hour wait for security clearance.

The day started in historic DuPont Circle, from there, the group walked to the White House. After a tour of the White House grounds, the group was invited to a reception hosted by the American Council on Education (ACE). 

There, Parks had a chance encounter with the vice president’s Chief of Staff Lorraine Voles, that led to an opportunity to intern at the White House. Voles mistook Parks for a current White House intern. As the two laughed about this case of mistaken identity, Parks introduced himself in a memorable way.  

“I told her my name and asked her to repeat it three times, so she wouldn’t forget. It was the same request that I would make to Vice President Harris,” Parks said. “I told her about my background and said, ‘I am an advocate for my community to make a difference.’  She said that I was the kind of person needed at the White House, that I was special – and she knew my name!’’ Parks recalled with a chuckle.

After the reception, Parks and the other students met Vice President Harris. “Because of where I was seated, when Vice President Harris entered the room, I was the first person she saw. Her energy exuded the moment. She was clearly passionate about her work. Student leaders voiced serious and grave concerns about reproductive rights, now in question following the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

“The Vice President didn’t not speak to us like she was a politician. Her answers couldn’t have been more honest and from the heart,” said Parks.

According to Parks, the group was asked what policies colleges and universities have in place to accommodate young people who are facing reproductive issues.  More specifically, officials wanted to know what support is offered to students to help them cope with the loss of reproductive rights.

“It was powerful to hear different perspectives from students from so many different backgrounds,” said Parks.

At the end of the discussion, Harris told students to continue a shared governance, to stay in touch with each other and to build coalition movements. Parks took the assignment to heart and joined the Advocates for Youth Program, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that focuses on the fight for sexual health, rights, and justice. He’s now working to bring the Advocates for Youth program to GSU.

Many of the students had backgrounds in reproductive or women’s issues and/or their schools had programs. While Governors State does not have a formal program, Parks brought something else to the table.

Before the visit, Parks administered a six-question survey to GSU students that included questions about abortion health care and reproductive rights. 

“I was able to use the responses to provide substance,’’ said Parks. “So for me, it was more of an educational journey rather than a journey for activism.”

At a recent Board of Trustees meeting, Parks reported Governors State was the only Chicago-area university in attendance, and one of only two Illinois institutions at the meeting. He also discussed the value-added survey results.

“I used those responses to provide substance to what I had to say. I was able to insert my own beliefs and also bring some comments from GSU students into the conversation as well. Students were allowed to ask specific questions and immediately hear from the White House.”

Looking forward to his summer in the White House, Parks thanked GSU President Cheryl Green for thinking of him.  

“Had I not received this invitation from Dr. Green to represent GSU, I wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity to be a White House Intern. I am grateful that somebody saw something in me. Now I have an opportunity of a lifetime,” Parks said.

This story originally was published by Governors State University.

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