High Schooler Stands Out On Stage With Obama, College Students, Grads

CHICAGO (CBS) — For most high school seniors, it might seem intimidating to share the stage with a former president, but 18-year-old Ayanna Watkins more than held her own on Monday at a forum with Barack Obama at the University of Chicago.

On a panel that mostly consisted of college students and graduates, Kenwood Academy senior Ayanna Watkins was the only high schooler; but she’s a student leader and starting her own clothing line, so she said she wasn’t intimidated to be the youngest person on stage.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of student-led organizations where we’re able to speak up. So being on this panel wasn’t awkward for me, but it was a great experience how they let me be on the panel, and not only voice my opinion, but they also interacted with my opinions as well,” she said.

On the other hand, Watkins acknowledged she was a bit star struck to meet former President Obama, who was making his first public appearance since leaving the White House.

“He came in cool, calm, and collected; laughed, joked. This experience is so surreal. Tomorrow I will still not imagine that this happened to me,” she said.

Nonetheless, Watkins was more than equal to the task at Monday’s forum, as Obama and the students discussed community engagement and leadership.

Obama talked, in part, about what’s keeping some young people from being more involved in their communities. He suggested the sheer number of ways people get their news and information, sometimes from partisan sources, is one reason people don’t rationalize together.

“We now have a situation in which everybody’s listening to people who already agree with them, and are further and further reinforcing their own realities,” he said.

Mas Freedman, a political liaison for the College Republicans at the University of Chicago, said it’s beyond that.

“It’s not just that we’re reading different news, but it’s that we don’t talk to each other anymore,” he said. “Civic engagement, at some point, will require a level of civility, I think. There’s a lot of problems with our politics.”

Watch & Listen LIVE