President Obama Visits Valencia to Address Economy, Leveling the Playing Field for Women

President Barack Obama spoke to a lively crowd of 300 students, staff and invited guests at Valencia College’s West Campus today. Under a banner that read, “Opportunity for All,” the president said that too many Americans – especially women – don’t get the “fair shot” they deserve.

“I’m coming here today to make sure the economy rewards the hard work of women,” Obama said. “Women make up 80 percent of my household. And I personally know the challenges that women face in our economy…The most important breadwinner in my family was my grandmother – who worked her way up from being a secretary to a bank vice president. But she hit a glass ceiling – and ended up training men who would become her bosses.”

Obama announced that the next 12 months would be “a year of action” to help women. His visit to Valencia kicked off a series of five regional forums on women’s issues. The forums will take place this spring and will culminate in a White House Summit on Working Families on June 23.

Prior to his speech, Obama held a round-table discussion with female students, faculty and local working mothers to talk about the economic challenges they face. The group included culinary student Carolyn Verno, Valencia West Campus President Falecia Williams, and Lynn Desjarlais, an adviser who works with students in Valencia’s Hospitality and Culinary program. Verno graduated from high school in 2007 and worked in retail in what she describes as “a dead-end” job. Discouraged by the low pay, she enrolled in Valencia in 2012 and will soon graduate, with the prospect of almost doubling her income once employed.

In recent months, the Obama administration has sought to raise the minimum wage and address income inequality, in light of the fact that for every dollar that a man earns, a woman with the same credentials and training earns 77 cents.

Women make up 56 percent of the 70,000 students that Valencia serves, as well as 58 percent of community colleges across the country. The White House choose Valencia for the president’s visit because of the number of women enrolled in high-paying programs such as nursing, computer technology and engineering.

But that wasn’t the only reason Valencia was selected.

“A few years ago, I announced a new competition called the Aspen Prize to recognize exceptional community colleges,” Obama said. “And lo and behold, your school won it – out of all the community colleges in the country. “

“President Obama is a strong proponent of community colleges and recognizes that Valencia is at the forefront of higher education’s greatest challenges and opportunities,” said Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College.

Shugart drew laughter from the crowd of invited guests when he described the heightened security and fanfare surrounding a presidential visit as “just a regular day at Valencia.”

In fact, Valencia has hosted two other presidents in its 47-year-history. In 1996, President Bill Clinton visited the college to tout the quality of its high-tech training programs. Clinton returned to Valencia in March 1998 to survey damage in the aftermath of a series of deadly tornadoes that struck near the Osceola Campus. And in 1987, President Gerald R. Ford spoke at a special “Salute to the Constitution” held on the college’s flagship West Campus.

More recently, in June 2012, Second Lady Jill Biden came to Valencia for a round-table discussion about the college’s partnerships with employers. Video of Biden’s visit is available here.

Today’s event was not open to the public, but was live streamed on Photos from the event are available here.

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