Auburn University’s third installment of the Critical Conversations speaker series welcomed Barbara Pierce Bush and Jenna Bush Hager who spoke to hundreds of Auburn students and residents about diverse perspectives on women leaders at the Auburn Arena on Thursday night.
Auburn SGA President Jacqueline Keck and Executive Vice President of Outreach Bri Thomas introduced Bush and Hager, the daughters of former U.S. President George W. Bush, and Taffye Benson Clayton, the discussion’s moderator, to the stage.
“It is our honor to welcome our guests today as they visit Auburn and lend their voices to the important conversation surrounding what it means to be a woman and a leader in today’s society,” Keck said.
Clayton highlighted the importance that Auburn University has placed on women leadership as it celebrates 125 years of women at the University and asked the sisters how being a part of a political family has shaped their perspectives of the world.
Bush said that when she was 7 years old she mistakenly thought everyone’s grandfather was a president.
“I sort of took a long time to really realize that our grandfather was in a position of power and so much of that is because of who he is as a human,” Bush said. “He’s extremely humble, he has this quality that I really admire a lot more as I get older of his strength being through softness and is through being vulnerable and sitting with people as they’re vulnerable.”
“We have watched documentaries and heard these stories that he’s never told us because he had too much humility to do so, so starting off we witnessed this, but we also felt unconditionally loved by our grandparents and our parents and had a very normal childhood,” she said.
Hager said that when their father was going to run for president, they urged him not to because they wanted to have normal college student lives, but they soon came to appreciate the privilege of “living history.”
“Our parents were so kind to include us in a lot of their travels, so we got to travel all over the world,” Hager said. “We got to go with them and witness the unveiling of a major policy, and we sat with women and children who were infected with HIV/AIDS, for example, in Africa, and we listened to each of their stories.”
Bush then spoke about her experience in college.
“While its awkward to be in college while your dad is president, it could not have been a better time," Bush said. "We were both in a time in our lives when we were really thinking about what you want to do with your life and wondering what your possibilities could be and are you enough even to fulfill the dreams you think you want to have.”
Bush, who is now the co-founder and CEO of Global Health Corps, told the audience how she used to be an architecture major in college before going to Africa and witnessing for herself the lack of help many people infected with HIV there had.
“I was totally, totally shocked and angered because we landed, and there were literally hundreds of people waiting in the streets for drugs that were readily available in the United States for years,” Bush said. “To find out that [the drugs] have been manufactured and perfected, but if you were poor then you couldn’t get access to them blew my mind in every way and really infuriated me.”
Hager, who has written several books and is now a correspondent for NBC’S “Today” show, spoke about her early experiences as a teacher in Washington, D.C., and her travels to Latin America working for UNICEF.
“I met mothers and their children, and I wrote their stories because I was younger then and close to these kids’ age,” Hager said. “I think, and I’m an English major so I’m biased, that stories do more to inspire people than statistics.”
Responding to Clayton’s question about women in leadership positions, Bush asked the audience members to raise their hands if they considered themselves to be leaders, to which only a few did.
“Everyone sort of says, ‘But I’m not a leader,’ … You don’t really ever arrive as a leader, you either just take the responsibility of being a leader, which is being a human in general and realizing that it’s your responsibility to connect with others, or you don’t,” Bush said. “It’s not about a title, it’s about how you interact with other people.”
Hager answered by talking about “Sisters First,” the book she and Bush wrote together, and the supportive relationship she had with her sister growing up.
“Women have to be better about supporting each other,” Hager said. “It doesn’t matter what political persuasion you’re interested in or what party, but this whole year we saw that women, no matter what political party, weren’t being lifted up the right way … so I hope we can just share the power that women can have when they have this great support system.”