Story by Austin Cannon
Drake University has had an increased presence in the nation’s capital over the past four weeks.
University President David Maxwell has spent time during his three visits to D.C. attending different meetings related to higher education, but what he did not expect was a ticket to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 28.
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, the namesake of Drake’s Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement, offered Maxwell his guest ticket to the speech.
Even though the two have known each other for almost 15 years, the gesture was unexpected.
“Since each member of Congress only has one ticket, of course, I never expected to be invited. It was a complete surprise, and I was very touched that Sen. Harkin invited me,” Maxwell said in an email.
Sophomore politics major Ben Verhasselt was watching the speech with other students at a watch party sponsored by Young Americans for Liberty, Drake Democrats and College Republicans.
Verhasselt, 20, and his fellow viewers tried to pick Maxwell out of the numerous faces in the packed chamber.
“We were all sitting there, looking for him in the crowd, either in the background or if they would zoom in on him. Obviously, we didn’t expect any inclusion in the speech, but it was still cool to have that in the back of your mind,” Verhasselt said.
Maxwell was glad Obama discussed the administration’s higher education agenda, and he found the recognition of Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg, who was wounded in Afghanistan, “incredibly moving.”
Two weeks before the State of the Union, Maxwell was in Washington for a meeting of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, of which he is a member of the board of directors, on Jan. 15. The next day was the White House Summit on the Education Pipeline, hosted by President Obama, where Maxwell was one of 80 university presidents attending.
The two days included panels, presentations and a Wednesday night dinner with senior White House officials.
“I think it’s an important sign that Drake was one of the institutions invited to participate… The most important thing is that this summit catalyzed over a hundred substantive initiatives to increase low-income access to post-secondary education,” Maxwell said.
One of those stimulants was a new program unveiled by Drake, the Principal Financial Group, Des Moines Public Schools and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines on Jan. 16.
The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Pathway Initiative was featured at the White House Summit as one of the plans to provide access to higher education for low-income students.
In its first year, the Initiative will match 20 Des Moines high school students, who qualified for the program with eighth grade math assessment scores, with Drake student mentors and Principal employees. The purpose is for the student to investigate possible careers in actuarial science, information technology, accounting, finance and insurance.
After completing high school, the students will have the option to be admitted to Drake with the necessary financial support. While on campus, they will be eligible for paid internships at Principal and, after graduation, considered for full-time employment.
For Maxwell, the plan had been in the works for months.
“Larry Zimpleman (CEO, chair and president of The Principal Financial Group and chair of the Drake University Board of Trustees) and I have been talking about it since last June. The invitation from the White House to participate in the summit, and to propose an initiative to address low-income access, gave us the impetus to pull things together and finalize it,” Maxwell said.
Sara Bonney, director of marketing and communications for the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, was pleased by the effort of collaboration the STEM Initiative has brought to Des Moines.
“It’s a great opportunity to see for profit, education and non-profit organizations to come together for the common goal,” Bonney said. “It’s a great example of how Des Moines is investing in young people.”
To Maxwell, having the STEM Initiative featured nationally will help Drake in the future.
“It was very rewarding and good for Drake to have it featured nationally. The fact that we were invited to participate says a great deal about Drake’s stature on the national higher education landscape,” Maxwell said.
Being on that national landscape could help further the opportunity of higher education for those who may not usually be able to afford it.
“This is a need that affects Des Moines and the entire country,” Bonney said.