Before last week, Patrick Houston ‘16 only dreamed that he would someday meet the President. However, the afternoon of Tuesday, Sept. 13, found Houston standing at a podium in Eakins Park, praising Barack Obama’s moral judgment and courage in leadership. The crowd roared at Houston’s words, and then, the President himself emerged, shook Houston’s hand, and began to speak.
“It was definitely unbelievable. Obama’s been this huge role model for me on so many levels, and in the past, I’ve told myself, sometime in my life, I’m going to meet this guy. I thought it was going to be 20 years from now!” Houston laughed.
Last Friday, Houston was contacted by fellow student Nate Urban, who told him about the opportunity to introduce Obama in Philadelphia. The White House spent the weekend vetting him, and on Sunday, approved Houston to speak. They only gave Houston a few guidelines: keep your speech one to two minutes, introduce the president, discuss the Affordable Care Act, and tell your story — and what a story that is.
Houston, who grew up in North Philadelphia, was raised by his eleven siblings from a young age after the death of his parents. His family did not have healthcare, and he attended a small, Christian school, at which every student in his school was also a member of his Church.
“The education … had to be aligned with the doctrine of the Church, which was a really fundamental Christian Church. Because of that, my education in high school was really limited, but it wasn’t only the education. It was also the exposure to things beyond that environment,” Houston said. “Because the church and, thusly, the school discouraged essentially fellowship outside that community. They discouraged going to college. They discouraged watching television, listening to radio.”
After high school, however, Houston enrolled at the Community College of Philadelphia , and believes that the classes he took, especially those in philosophy, religion, and sociology, completely changed his life.
“I was exposed to topics I never would have chosen to take. That really transformed me on an academic basis, intellectually … and put the first 18 years into perspective,” he said.
Along with enrolling at CCP, another event greatly impacted Houston — the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
“Not only did I not have healthcare before, but the Church that I grew up in, we believed in divine healing, so no medicine, you don’t go to the doctor. If you get sick, you pray,” Houston said.” [After the ACA came into effect], first off, it was learning what healthcare was, period, and then, it was learning specifically what provisions the Affordable Care Act has,” Houston said.
Houston transferred to Swarthmore in 2015. In his speech, Houston spoke about the importance of moral judgment and leadership, and he believes that his experiences at the college have helped him understand good leadership. He especially touts a class called Ethics and Public Policy, taught by now-retired political science Professor Cynthia Halpert, as teaching him about the importance of theories and practice.
In fact, his understanding of Obama’s leadership was developing even less than a week before his speech.
“Four days before the speech, for my international politics class, we read the Obama Doctrine, and it talked about Obama’s approach to foreign policy … It talked a lot about Obama’s approach with the conflict in Syria — it was there that I was able to apply a more specific example where I see that emphasis and that pressure on sound moral judgment, where a lot of lives are in your hands,” Houston said.
However, Houston doesn’t think good judgment is important only at the national scale.
“When I said leaders with sound moral judgment, I was building up to Obama, but it doesn’t have to be a leader of the entire country. [It’s just] where you recognize the value of people who carefully make informed decisions and carefully apply theories into practice.”
On the day of his speech, Houston felt both the privilege and the responsibility of speaking in the city he calls home.
“In a way it was intimate, and in another way it wasn’t … I guess this feeds into this responsibility that I had, where it’s like okay, I’m right out of the heart of North Philadelphia, and I get to rep my city, and I gotta do it right.”