By Chris Casey | University Communications
WASHINGTON - It was almost 11:30 p.m. EST when Mahala Greer got back to her Washington, D.C., hotel room, but she was still thrilled by the "surreal experience" of having been in the audience at the State of the Union speech.
Greer, a University of Colorado Denver senior, was among 20 invited guests who sat near first lady Michelle Obama for the annual address in the U.S. Capitol. She also toured the White House and met the first lady before the national address.
"It was a pretty surreal experience to be there live while he was giving the speech," Greer, a 24-year-old Spanish major, said of President Barack Obama. "I thought it was an amazing speech overall. I thought it was a call to action for everybody to really make government work again and that the government needs to be more representative of the common American."
Last October, Greer was selected to give introductory remarks to the president's speech at the standing-room-only Auraria Event Center. She talked about how she has shouldered her college costs by working and how, when she graduates in May, she will have run up more than $30,000 in government loan debt.
Her comments were a perfect springboard for President Obama, who announced a federal program aimed to simplify loans and reduce the amount of discretionary income graduates had to pay toward debt each year.
At last night's State of the Union, the president said paying for college can be a "daunting challenge." He added, "At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July."
Greer said the president called for more public funding to universities, while emphasizing that they must be held accountable for tuition increases.
"I think he made a good point of where higher education in this country needs to go - not making it a luxury, but an economic necessity," she said.
Greer said she spent about two hours in the White House, enjoying "delicious food" and getting a tour of the rooms "that were a little more opened up than normal tours."
She also visited with the other invited guests, who included Mark Kelly, the astronaut husband of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot a year ago at a political function 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.
Greer, who grew up in Paonia, Colo., next fall will begin a two-year stint with Teach for America. The national teacher corps places recent college graduates in under-resourced urban and rural schools. Greer will teach in a school in Colorado.
She said she was a big fan of the president before the whirlwind events that have put her in the national spotlight. Now, she's an even bigger supporter.
"This is one of the first administrations I've really been behind in my lifetime," she said. "That's what I'll remember - the passion and excitement. If what he was talking about in his speech actually happens, it will be very exciting and positive."
Greer returns to Colorado - and the home stretch of her college career - today.