“These students have a responsibility to give back, not just to their HBCU’s but to their community, and President Obama is definitely going to discuss that tomorrow,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest as he provided insight on President Obama’s planned college commencement speech at Howard University, one of his final commencements as president.


“I met with him earlier as he was writing it, he has really been thinking about it a lot,” said Earnest.


Earnest held a press briefing at the White House with 25 student journalists from Newsroom U, an inaugural journalism program held at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs May 5-9, 2016. He  answered questions from the young journalists on topics ranging from millennial involvement in the 2016 presidential election to the Flint water crisis.


He touched on the President’s visit to Flint, Michigan, earlier in the week, as well as government efforts to help residents affected by the water crisis. “It is the little things we take for granted; no one ever thinks about it, but it is so hard to wash lettuce with bottled water,” Earnest said.


The press secretary outlined the resources the government has been providing the Flint community, from grandfathering Flint residents under 21 into Medicaid, to getting water filters inside homes, and educating the community on ways of potentially reversing the effects of lead poisoning.


“The most important things are ensuring Flint residents have the resources they need and are educated on how to combat lead poisoning. There is no reason children in Flint should not be able to dream any less big than they could before, and the people of Flint really needed to hear that from their president,”declared Earnest.


When the focus turned to a topic highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, Earnest shared the president’s thoughts on how to best tackle the rising rate of mass incarceration occurring in the U.S.  President Obama was the first US president to visit a federal prison last year when he met with inmates at a Oklahoma City prison in July.


When asked why the president has granted fewer pardons than his predecessors, Earnest noted that he granted clemency at a high rate, but fewer outright pardons. “President Obama has granted more clemency than the last six presidents combined. Pardons are granted on a case by case basis, but the most effective way to tackle this is criminal justice reform,” he said.


One of the recurring topics touched on in the briefing was the importance of millennial engagement in the voting process. Earnest was asked about the administration’s efforts to engage young people, including via social media. “Voting is incredibly important, and the most important thing millennial voters can do, however it is not the only thing,” he said.


He highlighted efforts to reach young people online. “The White House has a website called We the People Petitions; if a petition gets more than 100,000 signatures in 30 days, then the White House will officially respond to it. “


He cited the "Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act"  passed during the summer of 2014, which allowed cell phones to be transferred freely between carriers. The law, of interest to millennials, began as an online petition created on We the People.


The students, who has a private audience with the press secretary, researched issues of interest to millennials and focused their questions on those topics.


“It was exciting to be there, I was definitely very nervous at first, but as a group we handled it very well.” said Imani Moise, a senior at Duke, who asked the press secretary about the Obama administration’s work on social security reform.


Though the briefing mainly focused on millennial involvement in politics, Earnest ended the press conference with some encouraging words for the student journalists, stating: “The role of independent journalists has never been more important. We need more journalists who are willing to put personal bias aside and just report the facts”.