George Francis

A University of the Virgin Islands communications student was able to do something that members of the White House press corps don’t often get to do — engage a White House spokesperson.

George Francis, a senior at UVI and contributing writer for its newspaper, joined other student journalists from 21 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in a virtual White House briefing with Deputy Principal Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

According to a UVI news release, the event was part of the White House HBCU Week held in collaboration with the White House Initiative on HBCUs.

The half-hour briefing on Sept. 10 was live streamed and Francis, had the opportunity to question Jean-Pierre “as a professional journalist would in a White House press conference,” according to the statement.

Jean-Pierre interacted with the student journalists in a question-and-answer format, and each interaction averaged four minutes. Schools were called in alphabetical order, with UVI being last on the list, the release noted.

“I was humbled to be granted this opportunity to interview the deputy press secretary from our nation’s highest office,” Francis said in a prepared statement. “To be quite honest, I was really nervous as I sat waiting for my name to be called, but I knew I would have to do my best to represent the territory, my University, the Communication Department and our student newspaper, UVIVOICE 2.0.”

The UVI statement noted that Francis asked this of Jean-Pierre:

“My class at UVI is reading a book entitled ‘Diversity Matters’ in the 21st century which includes a chapter about you, the BLM movement and Anglophone African-Caribbean impact. We have discussed your blueprint for activism and sections from your book “Moving Forward.” Might you expand on your thoughts that topics such as mental illness, depression and suicide must be acknowledged as serious social ills in communities of color and become part of a larger dialogue in mainstream society?”

Jean-Pierre, according to UVI, expressed surprise prior to answering.

“Wow. I did not know about this … ‘Diversity Matters.’ It’s good to know I’m included in that,” she said.

Francis told her that the topics “aren’t addressed as much as they should be in communities of color, so I wanted [to] know what the current administration was doing to address them.”

Jean-Pierre, in her response, said the Biden administration “takes these issues very seriously,” and that President Biden recently signed a proclamation where “he proposed $180 billion to fund suicide prevention programs at the Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.”

She added Biden also signed the American Rescue Plan into law, noting “our nation’s youth has been especially vulnerable to the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The four-day HBCU virtual conference hosted events that focused on education, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math or STEM careers and opportunities, as well as infrastructure and federal programs.

Francis, a former Daily News intern, was part of the first White House briefing organized primarily for HBCU student journalists, however, officials hinted that other programs of this nature are planned for the future, according to UVI.

“Hopefully, when the White House opens back up, we can have you all physically here,” Erica P. Loewe, the director of African American Media at the White House who organized the press briefing, said.