DENVER – Mahala Greer, the University of Colorado Denver student who introduced President Barack Obama at his CU Denver speech last fall, tonight will attend the State of the Union address as a guest of the first lady.
Greer, who will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, was informed on Thursday that she’d been selected among the invited guests for the annual speech in the U.S. Capitol.
“I was essentially speechless,” said Greer, 24. “I was so honored to be getting a call.”
Greer’s journey to the White House – she will tour the president’s home a couple hours before tonight’s speech – began in October when it was announced that President Obama would speak at CU Denver. Greer works as a peer educator in the CU Denver Office of Community Standards and Wellness, where she learned that student volunteers were sought to assist with the Oct. 26 speech, but also that the White House was looking for a student leader to introduce the president.
Greer wrote a few lines about herself and her college experience and ended up being selected for the introduction.
In her brief remarks to a jam-packed Auraria Event Center, Greer said she has consistently worked 20 hours per week while attending the university.
“In my college career, I have borrowed nearly $30,000 of federal loans, and I know I’m not the only one in this room,” said the Paonia, Colo., native. “I’m in a situation like so many other students, where I am solely responsible for my education and all my expenses and I have been since I left high school.”
The president used Greer’s remarks as a springboard into the theme of his speech: student debt. He told the large crowd that the cost of college has tripled over the past three decades and that college graduates now average $24,000 in loan debt.
On the Denver campus, he announced a program, enacted through his executive authority, that will reduce the maximum repayment of student loans from 15 percent of discretionary income each year to 10 percent. It also consolidates payments into a single loan. The initiative is set to go into effect this year.
Greer said that in the call on Thursday, the White House officials “thanked me for sharing my story back in October and they thought it really spoke well to what college students are going through these days, and they asked me if I’d like to be a guest.”
She said about 20 people from around the country will be among the first lady’s guests at the State of the Union speech. The honorees include Mark Kelly, the husband of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot a year ago at a political appearance in Arizona; and Lorelei Kilker, a chemist from Brighton, Colo., who was among a group of women who benefited from a federal investigation into alleged sex discrimination.
The group will tour the White House and have appetizers before being escorted to the Capitol.
The notoriety Greer is getting is not surprising to her colleagues and professors at CU Denver.
“She does educational programming about health and wellness for students,” said Larry Loften, director of the Office of Community Standards and Wellness. “She approaches everything she does with a sense of creativity and passion and looking for ways she can connect students with information.”
Greer, whose specialty is bilingual education, said she will begin a two-year stint with Teach for America after she graduates in May. She will be placed in a school in the program’s Colorado region.
“I’m really passionate about closing the achievement gap in education,” Greer said. Teach for America “gives you extra preparation for that challenge you might face as an educator.”
Greer said she couldn’t be happier about attending CU Denver. “I feel the education I’ve received at CU Denver has been really solid. Working on campus and the people I’ve met in administration have been fantastic. They give above and beyond in wanting to help students with our future.”
In the Department of Modern Languages, “Everybody is just super helpful and super passionate about their job,” Greer said. “It just makes it a really great learning environment.”
In the past three months, Greer has mixed learning with unexpected moments in the national spotlight.
She’s only been to Washington, D.C., once previously, on a family vacation when she was 8.
“I don’t really remember much of it,” she said. “I’m looking forward to getting out of the hotel and walking around before I go to the White House.”
She flies back to Colorado on Wednesday morning.
The State of the Union address will be televised nationally at 7 p.m. MST.