An Evening with Laura Bush

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Former first lady Laura Bush visited Georgia Southern’s Hanner Fieldhouse Sept. 17 as part of the University’s Leadership Lecture Series. For decades, Mrs. Bush has traveled the U.S. and the world championing issues in education, healthcare and human rights. She now serves as Chair of the Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute and continues working on global health care innovations, education reform, empowering women in emerging democracies and supporting America’s veterans. The former first lady is also the best-selling author of her memoir, Spoken from the Heart.

During Mrs. Bush’s inspirational speech, she shared her journey from teaching in a public school to becoming first lady of the United States, and spoke candidly about her emotional experiences during 9/11 as well as her treasured family memories.

Following her speech, Mrs. Bush responded to questions from students in the audience on a range of topics, including the importance of maintaining a work/life balance. She encouraged students to have children and enjoy family life, but also select a career they enjoy and work hard at it. “Family life with children is one of the great experiences of life, and work is very important. Working very hard is what you can do to make life very fulfilling,” she said.

Georgia Southern magazine had the opportunity to speak with Mrs. Bush about her devotion to improving people’s lives around the world, her passion for education and her joy at becoming a new grandmother.

GS: When did you decide to become a teacher, and who influenced your decision to enter the field of education?

LB: “I decided to become a teacher in the second grade. I loved my teacher and wanted to be just like her. I also played school when I was little and my mother knew that I would become a teacher when I fussed at my dolls for not paying attention.”

GS: Did you ever imagine that your career in the classroom would lead to a life in the White House and becoming an advocate for education in the U.S. and around the world?

LB: “I never imagined that I would one day live in the White House, but in fact, having been a teacher was a huge advantage for me. I knew a lot about inner city public education and that was a big advantage, especially since George ran for both governor of Texas and the Presidency on the platform of Education Reform.”

GS: The Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries has provided more than $10 million in grants to school libraries around the nation since 2002. How has your Foundation made a difference?

LB: “We provide grants to schools that are about 85 percent free lunch, and the money we give goes toward materials that support the student body or a specific curriculum. Currently, we are looking at providing support for electronic media — both through funding and purchasing tablets for schools, which would be very helpful.”

GS: In your work with the Bush Policy Institute, you have frequently mentioned that ‘women around the world are catalysts for change.’ Please discuss your efforts in launching the First Ladies Initiative.

LB: “This summer we hosted a First Ladies conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This was a unique opportunity for the first ladies to get together and talk about issues that are the most important to them, and the ways we can make a difference. This network of first ladies is working to advance education, good health and economic opportunities for women and children around the world. We also hope to partner with Teach for All and Global Health Corps. Teach for All trains young educators, places them in classrooms and improves educational opportunities for children. The first ladies are eager to help establish teacher recruitment programs in their countries with this initiative.

“Our daughter Barbara is the founder of Global Health Corps, and she presented information at the first ladies meeting about her innovative program which has Global Health Corps fellows working in the health field in many African countries. The young people really inspired us.”

GS: How do you feel about the challenges facing our schools, and in what way will the Institute play a role in shaping the future of education?

LB: “We are working on several projects. The first is AREL (Alliance to Reform Educational Leadership), which works to improve principal training programs. Our goal focuses on the need for strong leadership in public education. If you have a great principal, then you are much more likely to have a really good school. School leaders are very important, and principals are the ones who structure the school and choose teachers.

“At the Institute, we are also working on a program called Middle School Matters. Middle school is really the last chance children have to come up to grade level, and if high school students are not reading on their grade level, they are not likely to be successful in high school.

“A great deal of new research has been done over the last decade or so on how to intervene and do specific strategic intervention with children who are not reading on grade level in middle school. In this way, students can be brought up to their grade level pretty quickly because their spoken vocabulary is larger than a first grader learning to read.

“We have other projects, including the global report card, which provides a rating comparison between school districts around the world, and also a research project on productivity, which focuses on the amount of money spent by school districts and its ties to academic achievement.

GS: How do you feel that you have improved people’s lives in ways you may not have expected?

LB: “One of the most important ways is through breast cancer awareness. I have visited the Middle East and spoken on television about the importance of breast self-exams and mammograms. In the Middle East, Arab women present about 10 years younger with breast cancer, and by the time it is discovered, many women are in stage 4. It was very important for me to communicate this message to women.

“In these countries, there are many cultural reasons why cancer is not discussed. For example, in the Middle East, even mentioning cancer might make your daughters unmarriageable. After I talked openly on television, many Saudi women reached out to their sisters, families and friends to make sure they had mammograms.

“Something else that is very important to me is the Heart Truth Campaign, which raises awareness about heart disease in women. I was told by one woman that I saved her life because she heard me talk on television about the symptoms of a heart attack. Often, women do not experience crushing chest pain. She woke up in the middle of the night with jaw and neck pain, and told her husband ‘Let’s pray and get to the hospital. I think I’m having a heart attack.’ She is in good health now and speaks to women’s groups about heart disease.

“Both of these examples are wonderful ways of knowing that people are listening and I have been able to affect their lives in a positive way.”

GS: What inspires you to devote your efforts to others, and what experience has affected you profoundly?

LB: “As first lady, I had the opportunity to be a voice for others, especially in Afghanistan. In 2001, I gave the weekly presidential radio address and described the plight of girls and women in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. We saw a country where women and girls were not allowed to be educated and it was shocking for me and the nation. After the radio address, I was approached by a woman who thanked me for speaking about their plight. At that time, I realized that people do listen to the first lady, and that she does have a platform, if she chooses to use it.”

GS: What are some of your favorite family memories of reading to your girls Jenna and Barbara?

LB: “I loved that time with them! Especially when they were little and they sat on my lap and we would read classics like Goodnight Moon and all the darling children’s books that American children are so lucky to have. George loved to read the Dr. Seuss book Hop on Pop to them, and they took it literally and jumped on him! (she laughs) In fact, I still have a little photo of the girls in diapers standing on top of him while he is laying on the ground reading to them.

“Even today, Jenna, Barbara and I still send our recommendations for best books to each other.”

GS: What type of family traditions will you introduce to your granddaughter?

LB: “Mila loves to look at books and chew on them, which is mainly what she wants to do! But, it’s fun to read to her, and I am going to continue our family traditions of reading together. One of my favorite memories is when George and I used to read the Hank the Cow Dog books to the girls when they were a little bit older. Those books are hilarious, and they are fun to read aloud.” - Mary Beth Spence

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