The Junior Fellows have had much to be thankful for in the last month. They completed their fourth annual County U program, undertook a seven-state educational field trip across the south, and participated in their typical array of service activities. Perhaps most rewarding, however, was the opportunity to share meals and conversations with former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.
For students who are torn among desires to pursue public service, criminal justice, national security, law, and politics, it would be difficult to find two more appropriate speakers. “It’s great to be exposed to these types of viewpoints from such high-profile figures,” noted Junior Fellows President Annel Gonzalez. “I feel like we’re all getting a head start in learning about opportunities from people who have the experience to share. It’s amazing.”
The Fellows’ meeting with Chertoff was arranged by the World Affairs Council (WAC) of Houston, which featured the former Homeland Security Secretary at a large luncheon in Houston. Chertoff engaged the crowd with his experiences in President Bush’s Cabinet, as well as his stints as federal prosecutor, federal appeals court judge, and as an attorney for one of the nation’s largest private law firms, Covington and Burlington.
In particular, he emphasized major challenges to the United States’ place in the world: (1) China, (2) Mexico, and (3) Cyber Security. Chertoff elaborated on these points in a small-group session with the Junior Fellows and other students.
“The small-group session was the best,” said first-semester SHSU freshman Ariel Traub. “In particular, I was able to ask him why he considered China a ‘rival’ but not an ‘enemy. While he contrasted China’s threat level with North Korea’s, he noted that China was expanding its military capabilities and seemed not to respect intellectual copyrights in efforts to “increase” their “span of control.”
But Chertoff wasn’t the only former Cabinet member the students shared a meal with in the month of November. Just a few days before Thanksgiving, the Junior Fellows had the unusual opportunity of having breakfast with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, this fall’s Presidential Speaker.
For a group of students who hope to pursue law careers, the opportunity proved insightful and rewarding. Gonzalez spoke of his journey as a poor son of immigrants, and his gratitude to the United States, his parents, and former President George W. Bush for the opportunities he has enjoyed.
As the nation’s first Hispanic Attorney General, Gonzalez’s comments were particularly significant to an organization that is majority Hispanic and greatly interested in law. He discouraged the students, however, from defining themselves exclusively by their ethnicity, noting that emphasizing education, hard work, and initiative were valuable to all Americans and important for all careers.
When the students pressed Gonzalez on policy issues, the former Attorney General instead pushed the students to answer their own questions. Once the students staked out a position, he turned the tables, asking them to provide the best case against their original argument, all the while pointing out that lawyers need to see both sides of an issue.
Perhaps most intriguing was Gonzalez’s discussion of the events following 9-11, when he was whisked away to an “undisclosed location” with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
“Having the former Attorney General give us a first-hand account of the high-level meetings following 9-11 was something you don’t typically get in class,” observed Junior Fellows Vice President Will Phillips. “We were very thankful for this opportunity.”
Speaking of opportunities, Gonzalez was particularly emphatic that the students make the most of them. “All Americans,” he said, “want the opportunity to succeed.” Most don’t want things given to them, “they just want opportunities.”
But ethnicity, an interest in law, and a desire for opportunities weren’t the only things that Gonzalez had in common with the Junior Fellows. As it turns out, he and Junior Fellows Officer Melva Gomez graduated from the same high school, MacArthur High School.
“It’s really inspirational to meet someone with a similar background who has succeeded,” observed Gomez, “particularly in the field I wish to pursue. Speaking on behalf of the whole organization, I’d like to thank President Gibson, Maggie Collum, and Cameron Clay for this amazing opportunity.”
For most college students, sharing a meal and a conversation with a former cabinet official is a once-in-a-college-career experience. For the Junior Fellows, however, the opportunities to meet with Chertoff and Gonzalez came in back-to-back weeks and followed their lunch earlier this year with Condoleezza Rice.
“We realize that these are unusual opportunities,” remarked Annel Gonzalez. “But our philosophy is to make the most of them when they arise. We seek these opportunities out, and we are very thankful to be at SHSU where opportunities are offered and initiative is rewarded.”
Note: The Junior Fellows would like to thank the World Affairs Council and the SHSU’s President’s Office for these opportunities.