Dominican University Provost Cheryl Johnson-Odim admits that she never thought she would witness an African-American elected president in her lifetime.

“During the primaries between President Obama and Hillary [Clinton] I was hoping that he would just win South Carolina,” said Johnson-Odim. “My expectations were low at the time, because I just could not see him elected regardless of how well regarded he is by his political peers.”

However, once he prevailed in the hotly contested primary race against Clinton, Johnson-Odim’s expectations took a significant leap.

Later, when she arrived on the first day of early voting in her Evanston neighborhood, she was greeted by a massive crowd of diverse voters voicing their support for Obama.

“That’s when I started to believe that the impossible was, indeed, possible,” she said.

Johnson-Odim, along with Hugh McElwain, professor of theology; Caprice Smalley, principal of San Miguel Gary Comer; and students Elena Maans and James Tierney, convened a panel discussion at Dominican University, 7900 W. Division, in River Forest.

The two-hour event, which took place on Jan. 19, allowed the panel to delve into the historical significance of the victory and what it means for race relations in the future for the country.

While discussing the Obama win, Tierney, who is senior studying English, recalled a memorable incident from his freshman year.

During a social civics class, Tierney’s professor asked the class a provocative question: “How many of you believe that whites have benefited from the history of slavery and prejudice?”

“Of our class of 32 students, about 30 raised their hands and believed that whites had benefited,” Tierney said. “Only two did not believe that statement was true – myself and another guy.”

Tierney said the incident forced him to confront the issue of race in a way he never had before.

“When I realized my mistake, it helped open my eyes to the culture of consent I had become part of,” said Tierney. “I think the refusal to seriously discuss issues of race and culture are as much to blame for the racial divides of this country as any other.

“As long as we consent to ongoing inequities, we will never have the type of dialogue we need to create the type of unification that Obama has spoken about.”

Tierney said that he sees the Obama victory as the catalyst in opening up the lines of communication about race. Through them he thinks we can finally begin to break the cycle of ignorance regarding race that has prevented many from truly living Obama’s one-nation vision.

Smalley said that the significance of an African American in the White House will be deeply inspiring to many students at his school and within the Austin community in general.

“We all grew up believing that we could be whatever we wanted to be, but I think our generation began to sense that there were limits to how far hard work and ambition can take you if you are a minority,” said Smalley.

“However, Obama’s victory is a testament to what is possible through education and a clear vision. … They now can see that anything is possible.”

Maans attended the post-election celebration in Grant Park and was awed by the sheer reach of Obama’s influence.

“He really does transcend racial and cultural lines,” said Maans. “The desire for change brings people together. When we are facing the challenges that we are facing, like developing green technology, solving the insistent economic crisis and ending the conflict in Iraq, we are looking for the man who seems most prepared to accomplish them. He has gained our faith in his abilities.”