The Taylor’s University team in preparing for President’s Obama’s recent visit to its Lakeside campus had to work closely with the US embassy and White House staff on various aspects, while beefing up security.
IT is a world of secret service, of classified blueprints and maps, of confidential reports – a world that most of us have seen only on our television screens.
It is so different from the goings-on in campus with its routine of lectures, time tables and teacher-student interactions.
Last month the two coalesced at the Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus in Selangor.
And at the centre of this challenging high profile event were the university’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences (SLAS) deputy dean, Assoc Prof Dr Anindita Dasgupta and programme director of the American Degree Transfer Programme (ADP), Prema Ponnudurai.
It began on a lazy Sunday morning. Dr Anindita received a phone call from her boss, Dr Andy Nazarechuk, SLAS dean who was in the Philippines.
Taylor’s University was hosting the President of the United States Barack Obama and she was be the person in charge of the visit.
“I dropped off my chair in shock,” Dr Anindita recalled. The US President was to address a townhall gathering of 500 representatives from the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) at the varsity’s lecture hall.
The initiative, President Obama’s signature programme for youth in the region, is to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia. This is being carried out through a variety of engagements, including educational and cultural exchanges, regional projects and seed funding.
After the initial shock, there was no time to reflect on the enormity of the project as they only had 10 days!
Within a few hours, Dr Anindita met a team from the US embassy to survey the venue. They needed a blueprint of the campus. The second visit coincided with Deepavali, a day she had always spent at home with family.
Still, she had to go to work and could not divulge her reasons for doing so, since the project demanded complete secrecy.
Thankfully Prof Perry Hobson, the varsity’s pro-vice chancellor chipped in later and agreed to show the members of the embassy around the campus.
The unreality dawned fully after the Deepavali break. A team was identified keeping in mind the areas in the campus that would be required for the preparations.
She also roped in Prema for the mammoth task ahead. Dr Nazarechuk, returned a week later to oversee the operation.
And so Project O was born – a small classified group that would remain active for days and nights leading up to the visit.
There were 15-members in the team. They were selected mainly from Security and Facilities, IT and Maintenance departments to oversee minute details.
Team members had been asked to maintain complete confidentiality. They were in touch with each other constantly.
“None of us slept much during that 10-day period. There was so much to be done and it had to be carried out without interfering with the regular university schedule.
“There was the university convocation scheduled right after the visit. There were also staff farewells and then this grand event.” said Prema.
For the next few days, there were briefings with the White House Security and Intelligence units every morning. Every day brought in new surprises. As they prepared to spruce up the façade of the campus, the security team informed the varsity team that the President would be using the “least expected” entrance.
“We were shocked. There was broken furniture and cracked plaster. We didn’t even know if there was a washroom there!” Prema said.
She also mentioned the presence of the White House security personnel on the campus.
“Imagine men in black suits and dark glasses trying to be inconspicuous on a dress-down Friday. But no one was willing to take any chances.”
Hidden within the everyday rigmarole of meetings, classes and campus maintenance, preparations for the visit were in full swing.
Instead of the pomp and pageantry, security and confidentiality held prime importance. Each member of the team was repeatedly reminded to exercise discretion.
“We knew that the event might be cancelled at the last minute if there was a breach. It was difficult not to tell your family,” Prema shared considering the cloud of uncertainty following the Paris incident on the weekend before the scheduled visit.
Teams from the White House security services and the US embassy worked alongside the academicians and staff of Taylor’s University who found themselves in this bewildering new role.
Everyone was extremely supportive. It boosted their confidence. We were given complete charge by the top management, shared Prema.
Dr Anindita and Prema thank Prof Datuk Dr Hassan Said, the university’s vice-chancellor and president and Prof Dr Pradeep Nair, deputy vice-chancellor, for giving them the responsibility of organising the visit and having faith in their abilities. Working alongside the Malaysian police and the White House security, cooperating with internal and external stakeholders in the event – it required all their negotiation and decision-making skills.
The campus and the venue was swept for security repeatedly by the Malaysian police and the White House Security.
As the day of the visit approached, the two worlds merged completely. The car parks of the campus turned into a landing pad for the helicopters.
Teams of outside workers descended on the campus. The preparations were being made not just for the visit of the US President but for an event the world would be watching.
The 40-member delegation including the national and international press were due to arrive with the president.
“The systems were to be set up. There was wiring, cables, lighting and teams of outside vendors that our IT and Facilities and Maintenance had to closely work with. It was unprecedented,” added Prema recalling the excitement.
“Staying on top of things was the greatest challenge,” said Dr Anindita.
With all the hard work that they had put in, the day of the visit turned out to be fairly peaceful. The staff and student volunteers had done a brilliant job.
Dr Anindita and Prema only received last minute invitations to the townhall meeting. They were to be present as the custodians of the event and also as representatives of the university.
Apart from international delegates and the press, 31 students from the varsity, had a chance to hear and interact with the President of the United States.
Most of these students were from ADP, the flagship programme of the university’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Toppers and achievers from the varsity’s other schools also participated with great enthusiasm apart from the 500 YSEALI representatives.
“I know for certain that these students were hugely inspired and motivated. All in all, this was once in a lifetime for the ADP, our staff and our students. What bigger event than a talk by President Barack Obama,” shared Dr Anindita.
The project had been a huge learning experience not just for the students but also for the staff and university.
“It is surreal now. To think that we did this. The excitement of working with the White House, the Secret Service, I think is exciting. But more than the event itself, was the build-up,” said Dr Anindita.
Prema also recalled the discussion the team had about how the choice of words on the university plaque.
“We weren’t sure whether to address our special guest as the ‘President of United States’ or as ‘44th President of the United States”. But then we decided against 44. It was trivia like this that consumed us at times,” shared Prema.
Dr Anindita summed it up by saying “It was an opportunity for the school and students to be associated with this extremely prestigious event. I think for us, the biggest reward was that 31 of our students had the privilege of attending this memorable meet. And I was willing to walk a hundred extra miles to make it happen.”
The writer, Dr Vandana Saxena is a senior lecturer at the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences - American Degree Transfer Programme (ADP) at Taylor’s University.
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