A Brown Bag Lunch with Secretary Arne Duncan

Last Friday afternoon, October 17, I had the honor of being up close and personal with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Since the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is housed under the Department of Education, the interns are also subject to the Department of Education’s internship program. Other than exciting tours around the city and exhilarating happy hours, the program also provides opportunities to attend insightful brown bag lunches with various people at the Department, including Secretary Duncan himself.

The brown bag lunch took place in the Secretary’s conference room at the Lyndon B. Johnson Department of Education building. The room was filled with eager interns, some joining us through video calling, all suited up, with faces full of excitement, and a pinch of nervousness. Or at least that might be the reflection of my own thoughts. I couldn't believe I was finally meeting the Secretary of Education after looking at his picture in front of the office door a thousand times!

Before the Secretary arrived, the room became like a get-together session. It is rare that all of the interns gather together and meet each other, getting to know other offices. This get-together included a diverse group of people from all over the nation, each with their own interesting background and story.

Secretary Duncan came soon after all of us settled down. My first impression was that he is very friendly, down to earth, welcoming, and far from being intimidating. He started of by humbly praising our work as an intern, saying “You are all way ahead of me when I was your age.” That was a very encouraging gesture, but also a reflection on how the culture and the atmosphere for undergraduate students have changed so much. Secretary Duncan also gave a quick remark on the future plans and projections of the Department. Since the time was very limited, the opening remark was very brief and was immediately followed by questions from the interns.

During the Q&A session, Secretary Duncan was very accommodating. He willingly answered the hard-hitting questions. We talked about the things that are relevant to us as college students, such as the extreme hike of college tuition, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in college campuses, funding and support for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, and also the Department’s plan towards implementing a college rating system. On all of these issues, he admitted there’s still big room for improvement.

We also covered K-12 education, such as the problem with the school to prison pipeline, the reality that schools are more segregated than before the Civil Rights era, the need for teacher diversity, the missing piece of schools’ curriculum, and also on programs like Teach for America. The Secretary answered all of it openly, explaining what has been done, what might be the challenges and limitations, while also admitting some aspects that might be lacking and failing. Secretary Duncan also wasn't afraid of answering more personal questions, such as what the future might hold for him after the administration comes to an end. The straight answer from him, “I don’t know!”

With the Secretary’s tight schedule, there wasn't enough time to continue the interesting conversation. He ended on a very inspiring and thought-provoking note for the interns, reminding us to stay connected and grounded to the community because in the end, all the work that we are doing is for the community and for public service.

Felippa Amanta is a UC Berkeley senior studying Sociology and Public Policy. She is interning with the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders as a Matsui Washington Fellow.