Lewis & Clark President Robin Holmes Sullivan was Congressman Earl Blumenauer’s (BA ’70, JD ’76) guest at the 118th Congress State of the Union Address speech given by President Joseph Biden on Feb. 7.
Holmes-Sullivan said she was excited about the experience, calling it “surreal.” As a self described “political junkie” and someone who considered going into politics, she was shocked by the approachability of the government. She wrote about it in a reflection letter to Professor of Political Science Ellen Seljan that Holmes-Sullivan shared.
“Being in the chamber with the individuals that are responsible for the running of our country was thrilling,” Holmes Sullivan said in her reflection letter. “But you know, what? They are just people. Any of us could be in their seat doing the things that they are doing if we really want that.”
There were specific moments from the speech that stood out to Holmes-Sullivan.
“The most poignant moments were when the First Lady and Second Gentlemen were introduced; and of course when the president made reference to Tyrie Nichols’ mom and dad who were there,” Holmes- Sullivan said in the reflection letter.
“It was very heartbreaking and inspirational. I was moved by the fact that the president said they were there because they wanted something good to come out of Tyrie’s death.”
During her time in Washington, Holmes Sullivan spent a lot of time with Rep. Blumenauer. The congressman graduated from LC’s undergraduate program and law school, and was pleased to take Holmes-Sullivan to the address.
“Lewis & Clark has a long and proud tradition of political engagement,” Blumenauer said via email. “I was delighted to host President Holmes- Sullivan at President Biden’s State of the Union speech, and pleased to introduce her to Speaker Pelosi.”
Aside from Blumenauer and Pelosi, Holmes-Sullivan met more than a dozen congresspeople; one of these officials was Representative Lori Chavez- DeRemer who represents Oregon’s fifth congressional district, into which LC falls. Holmes-Sullivan invited Chavez- DeRemer to campus. The two are trying to find a time that works.
Holmes Sullivan’s trip began with a National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) conference with other presidents of private, higher education institutions and culminated in the speech. The NAICU is a lobbying organization for private colleges, located in Washington D.C. thatcampaigns for the interests of schools like LC.
After the conference, Holmes Sullivan got a behind the scenes tour of the library of congress from Blumenauer. The congressman considers the library his favorite place.
Before the address, Holmes- Sullivan attended a party at House of Representatives Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries office. Many politicians Holmes- Sullivan recognized were in attendance.
“Maxine Waters walks by, and all these people they’re just walking around like you and me,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “I was both titillated by that, and I’d go up and talk to them. I went up and talked to Nancy Pelosi and got that picture of her, she gave me a little hug.”
During Biden’s speech he quoted a saying from his wife, First Lady and Northern Virginia Community College Professor of English Doctor Jill Biden: “Any nation that out-educates us is going to out-compete us.” Holmes- Sullivan considered this statement to be remarkably similar to her personal educational philosophy.
“The only way to have strong democracy is to have an educated citizenry,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “We all know that, it’s the principles on which a lot of things were built for this country, and it’s been disturbing to see the numbers of college age students, especially males dropping in this country. And so, I think that we all need to be concerned about that, and working toward how we can make sure that an experience like Lewis and Clark and anyplace else is available to everybody.”
In addition to the Biden administration’s connection to education, it is the first administration to have a person or woman of color as vice president. As a woman of color, it meant a lot to Holmes-Sullivan to see Vice President Harris in one of the three central seats.
“Just yesterday someone came up to me and said, you know, my daughter is interested in going to Lewis & Clark and part of her interest is that they have a Black president,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “That’s not the only reason why she’s going to come to school here, but for some people, it really does make a difference, that representation that they can see themselves doing these things.”
While Holmes-Sullivan felt a connection to certain aspects and enjoyed the experience, she felt a part of something bigger as a representative of LC.
“People were talking about it, and they were excited for me, but they were also excited for the institution that I got invited,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “Me being invited, it’s like we got invited and so it was a real highlight to how many people wrote to me and said, ‘We’re so glad you’re there.’”