College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

On meeting the First Family

The Purdue community enjoyed a unique opportunity to hear from members of an American First Family when Laura Bush, Jenna Bush Hager, and Barbara Pierce Bush visited campus in October for the Louis Martin Sears Lecture Series event, “Women in the White House and Beyond.”

The event’s moderator, associate professor of history Kathryn Brownell, was able to provide her students with a learning experience that was even more unique. Prior to taking the stage that night at Elliott Hall of Music, the Bush women met with students from Brownell’s course “The American Presidency” in a classroom setting, participating in a wide-ranging discussion about life in the White House, George W. Bush’s presidency, and the events of Sept. 11, 2001, among other topics.

While discussing the following images from the day, Brownell and two students from the course — Caroline Shanley and Katelyn Graham — shared what they learned from the Bushes’ visit and what it was like to meet members of one of America’s most famous political families:


Caroline Shanley: “I asked the First Lady about the institution of the First Lady. We talk a lot about presidents who obviously have all been men, but we don’t necessarily talk about the First Lady as an institution and as an American icon. So we talked extensively about what is the First Lady in terms of American public memory and history. How involved should he, eventually, or she be in the policy-making process because obviously first women have all had their policy areas on top of their endeavors that they really care about.”

Katelyn Graham: “Sitting right across from Laura Bush was quite the experience. I think there was a lot of apprehension because we were all told to arrive pretty early, and so we did. Just the anticipation of sitting there waiting and seeing the Secret Service come in and check the room, it was very surreal.”

Shanley: “She walked in and she had this air of confidence that you always see with high-profile public figures like that. But once I got talking, it was really insightful to talk to her. She is very poised, extremely eloquent, and so once you start asking her questions, both she and the daughters were very easy to talk to.”

Kathryn Brownell: “The students didn’t have to get their questions approved by anyone, so students could actually ask whatever they wanted to. That was something that we didn’t have in the broader public event. Those questions were carefully reviewed and officiated. So I thought that was actually the really great opportunity that the students could shape the conversation rather than just reading how it was shaped by other people.”


Brownell: “This picture conveys what I hope the entire event conveyed, which is that it was an enjoyable experience. It was fun on so many levels. It was fun because it was intellectually stimulating, and intellectually stimulating events, they should be fun. Learning should be fun. I fully believe that. And I think this event just created productive and positive dialogue, and it happened in the classroom, and I think that is an example. You can see it on my face, we are both enjoying it.”

Graham: “Laura Bush was just extremely comfortable in the situation. I’m sure she’s done things like this before, but she seemed so personable and attentive to everything everyone wanted to say and so kind. She just reminded me of my grandmother. I’m from Arkansas, and obviously they’re from Texas, so the Southern hospitality, I think I felt it in the room. It was a very surreal experience. But they kind of took control of the situation and made everybody feel at ease and made everyone feel like they were very open to listening to the questions and discussion. It really was a great discussion.”

Shanley: “This event solidified for me just that a First Lady who is responsible for being in the limelight all the time, they are just as capable and intelligent and eloquent as their male counterparts. I know this sounds kind of odd, but I think sometimes we overlook the First Ladies and forget that they have autonomous thoughts of their own and they are more than capable of doing events like this. So just seeing that in action and talking to her and realizing that she has all of these policy ideas, has a lot of the same experiences as her husband because she was right there by his side, was really important and validating.”


Shanley: “They just had genuine energy with each other. There were times where they’d talk over each other really briefly and it would just happen and we’d all kind of laugh as an audience. But it never felt awkward. I just felt like I was watching two sisters onstage. There was one time that Laura was scolding Jenna for saying something onstage in front of everybody and that was a moment where I thought, ‘OK, this is like a real family. Yes they lived in the White House and have been all over the world, but my mom would nag me up on stage in front of 6,000 people, too.’”

Graham: “They were in the White House when they were our age, so that connection was made, and yeah, there were lots of jokes and funny stories to be had. They were so open about their experiences and it was just a lot of fun to talk with them. They definitely came down to the level of just being normal people – and they are. Just because they were first kids doesn’t change that. But you assume when you’re going to meet somebody who has had the experiences that they have that there’s going to be something different about them. And there is, but they’re still people, and that definitely came through in this talk.”

Brownell: “I thought what was really fascinating is how different they were, but how similar their experiences were – which of course makes sense. They grew up together. But they both experienced these same important, transformative moments that we all did, especially when they talked about 9/11. But their individual experiences and the lessons they learned from it were also very different from each other. And I think that just speaks to their different trajectories, the different places that they studied, and the difference in their personalities and their interests.”


Shanley: “Dr. Brownell is one of my favorite professors at Purdue. She is the renowned scholar on presidential history. People all around the United States who work in the historical political field know her, and so I actually thought she was the perfect person to interview them. It was kind of fun to see her on the stage at Elliott at first, but I thought she did an exemplary job with it. I think it was also very important that a woman was interviewing the three of them. They did touch on the identity politics of womanhood, but regardless, just seeing three powerful women in their own rights onstage with a powerful woman here at Purdue who is intelligent and more than capable of doing this was really important and tied the whole event together.”

Graham: “The fact that we get to have that experience as students because of her mediating is so cool. I so appreciate it because how many times do you meet a first family? So I really appreciated that and the effort that she wanted to make sure this was a learning opportunity for us and not just a chance to get a photo with a famous person.”

Brownell: “With Mrs. Bush, I was really amazed. Of course 9/11 defined the Bush presidency, but she talked about that so much in ways that it reshaped how she thought about domestic policy, how she thought about education and how her education policies would have this new international element, bringing education into Afghanistan for women there. To me, I was really struck by when I think of foreign policy and I think of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, these are really divisive issues. 9/11 is something that communified the country, but what came after is something that became really politically controversial – especially the war in Iraq, this war that is still going on. And what really impressed me with her and surprised me, and maybe it shouldn’t have, was the ways in which that 9/11 experience helped redefine the agenda of the administration in ways that we’re perhaps not as familiar with.”


Brownell: “She made me laugh, and she reminded me of a close girlfriend that I would have. I think that just speaks to her ability to make people feel comfortable. We’re the same age. They’re actually both two months older than me, I believe, so a lot of their experiences I really connected with because I lived those experiences as well. And she immediately put me at ease. You can tell it’s part her personality, but it’s also her profession to put people at ease. Right before we went on, I was really nervous and she made me laugh and all of a sudden I wasn’t thinking about what we were about to do, going out there in front of 6,000 people. I was thinking about how I was excited to be having a conversation with her, and I think her ability to put people at ease and make them laugh and enjoy themselves – while, again, having a really productive conversation – is clearly why she has excelled at her job.”

Shanley: “They are very genuine. I felt like when I was talking to them, of course they are extremely eloquent, well-spoken people, but it never felt artificial. It always felt like they were truly giving me the answers that they believed in. Despite living in the White House, which is a very rare experience to say the least, they spoke so candidly and honestly.”

Graham: “I think Jenna is much more outspoken about anything and everything. She will tell you what she thinks regardless of who you are. And Barbara is, I think, much more guarded in that respect, which is interesting.”


Shanley: “A lot of our conversation with them was not necessarily, ‘Tell us about this Bush-era policy,’ but rather we asked them about the institution of the presidency and the First Lady, obstacles to being part of the Executive Branch, and talking about those more broad concepts rather than nitpicky political things was really important. That’s what I took away from it. Of course I have friends who are Bush supporters or critical of Bush, but I really reiterate how important it is to just talk to figures like that and really get their view on the institution itself rather than political things.”

Graham: “We talked a lot in the class setting about how much of a turning point 9/11 was for that administration. Laura talked about just how much the Bush administration thought they were going to be dealing with much more domestic things and even on an international level, they were thinking about, ‘How are we going to work on our relations with Mexico?’ and that kind of thing, much-closer-to-home international issues, not terrorism and the Middle East. That wasn’t even on the radar, I don’t think, as being a large issue. And then 9/11 happened, and that changed everything for that administration. I had no idea that that was the case.”

Brownell: “They were able to connect in very real ways with that experience everyone in that room has had about being a freshman in college and all of the insecurities you have in going to college, and then that being exacerbated by the fact that you’re constantly in the spotlight.”


Brownell: “It was interesting because at first Jenna was clearly in control and Barbara admonished her and said, ‘Well, are you going to be the moderator?’ I said, ‘Go ahead, you’re the professional.’ But it was interesting after that, they would both always look at me like, ‘Oh, we don’t want to infringe on what you’re doing,’ which to me, I thought was really kind, but I also wanted them to have the conversation and for me to just shape it. So I thought that was really interesting is that they would stop and look at me and say, ‘We’re ready for the next question.’ That was a really interesting experience. … It was interesting just to see where they would take the conversation. I really had no idea.”

Shanley: “One of my big things I told Dr. Brownell when she asked us about the follow-up event was I thought this event overall was important, not only because at a STEM university we have these figures in public policies and humanities coming to speak to us, but also the gender aspect of women leading and collaborating in the conversation. That’s just not something I would say we get often at Purdue.”


Brownell: “Even backstage, Barbara was a lot more reserved and thoughtful and Jenna clearly was the driving personality. But I thought she just had some really impressive and remarkable things to say. Her experiences, they do speak volumes that she has tried to take the opportunities that she’s been given and turn them into opportunities for other people and to come up with resources. She talked a lot about the global crisis of healthcare, but she also talked about how that’s in our cities and in our rural areas. That’s here, too, and so part of what her work has done is to grapple with the healthcare crisis at home. That’s something I wasn’t as familiar about when she was talking about some of the initiatives that they were doing in cities here. Again, I think that’s the really well-rounded view that there’s this problem and that she should start something and do something about it. I think for any student thinking about how they want to have an impact when they leave college, that’s a really great lesson of being innovative and entrepreneurial, but doing that in service of the public good.”

Graham: “She’s different from the rest. She just went a different road and has kind of stuck to it. Going to Yale and then she was going to be an architect and now she runs this global health organization – it’s very interesting. She’s a different breed of Bush, you could say. She was interesting, and I appreciated the different perspectives that she brought in with her sister.”

Shanley: “I think it’s really a moment of using your privilege to further something more altruistic. She talked about the reason she got into it was she had the opportunity to travel around the world, so she took every chance she could, she saw where need was around the world, and then she worked and got educated in order to address that problem now with a very successful foundation. … It’s a really interesting thing to see that the first children, at least in our recent memory, are doing things to use their means to further good in the world – even if it’s not directly in politics.”