On Tuesday, October 30, Secretary Leon Panetta made a visit to the Chofu campus. Panetta’s long career in politics has spanned over half a century, and seen him serve in Congress, as the Chief of Staff for President Clinton, the Director of the CIA and the Secretary of Defense under President Obama. But when he came to speak to our high school students this week, what they saw was not so much a well-regarded, high-ranking official, but a humble, public servant who has dedicated his life to the betterment of his country and fellow citizens.
Secretary Panetta’s visit, facilitated by Roy Ryu ‘77 and the Washington Speakers Bureau, was organized and hosted by six student leaders from high school: Rei Lindemann ‘19, Cora Eaton ‘20, Everett Hirano ‘20, Leah Fahy ‘19, Sean McGuire ‘20, and Masao Kawasaki ‘19. These students not only took on the responsibility of coordinating and promoting his visit, they also reached out to the student body beforehand to gather questions from their peers. With the help of their social studies teachers, they selected the questions and prepared their opening and closing remarks.
Despite a long and illustrious career, Secretary Panetta did not come to rehash his own glorious past with our high school students; instead, he focused on them and their futures as leaders and agents of change. The desire to inspire younger generations to aspire to leadership and public service led to his founding of the nonprofit Panetta Institute for Public Policy at UC Santa Clara. His message was one our students needed and wanted to hear. “Politics is so polarized today,” junior Sean McGuire noted. “Personally, as we are in the transition of becoming adults, it seems daunting to go back to the US and face the problems they are facing.”
Panetta spoke about his own experiences in Congress in the 1970s and ‘80s, comparing them to those of his son Jimmy, who now represents California’s 20th congressional district, contrasting the frequent cross-party cooperation he experienced with the current gridlock. His solution— look past labels, sides, and the desire to win and simply work together and collaborate for the betterment of the country. “Our country has had over 200 years of challenges,” he told students. “We have had a civil war, world wars, recessions, and depressions. But the power is and always has been with the people. And great leaders are those people who rise to these challenges.”
Parents and teachers know the frustration of teaching children one thing, while watching adults in the news do the opposite. Panetta spoke from experience about working alongside politicians and other world leaders who have looked past their own differences to implement public policy that benefits their constituents, and his stories (many of which cannot be found in a history book) served as an example to our own community. “I’ve worked under nine Presidents,” Panetta told the crowd. “I’ve worked over 50 years in public service and have seen Washington at its best and its worst. I have seen Democrats and Republicans put aside their differences and work together.” He reminded our students that true leadership is about “courage, strength, and the willingness to make sacrifices and take risks.”
During the Q&A session hosted by our six student leaders, the discussion covered everything from his initial reasons for pursuing the field of politics (his parents wanted him to become a professional piano player, but once he joined student council at his high school he discovered his passion for leadership through public service), to kneeling during the national anthem, and even whether or not he thought the current state of political tactics and rhetoric were appropriate. As someone who has worked for both major political parties, he had a lot to say about civility and respecting your colleagues. High school principal Dr Jon Herzenberg was impressed with Secretary Panetta—and our ASIJ students. He told us that “the world needs more people who can cultivate consensus, collaboration, and have the ability to work together with others from different backgrounds and perspectives. In order to achieve this lofty aspiration, compromise, patience, and empathy are required. In my humble opinion, Secretary Panetta embodied these attributes during his visit, both in his words and in his actions. I can confidently say, that our students modeled these same qualities as well.”
Following Panetta’s speech and the Q&A session, our student leaders toured him around our campus. The sincerity of his words became even more evident through his ease with the students, his frank, but humorous, honesty, and his genuine desire for a new generation of young people to be inspired to become leaders who create change—not through drawing a line in the sand, but through respectful dialogue and compromise.
After he left campus, the students were a bit shell-shocked. Senior Masa Kawasaki best summed up the opportunity they had just had by stating that this opportunity was a rare one indeed—it was a classroom lesson becoming reality. It was history, policy, and politics becoming a tangible, living person who was more than another distant sound-bite on their computer. It was, in fact, an all too brief moment that a leader became an inspiration to a new generation.