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Linda Gill-Nelson, originally from East Grand Forks, left, and her daughter Erica Thomsen at President Barack Obama's speech in Orlando, Fla., Thursday. Photo credit: Linda Gill-Nelson.

East Grand Forks native thrilled to meet Obama, hear him talk about equal pay for women

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Not too long ago, Linda Gill-Nelson wrote a letter to President Barack Obama thanking him for a student-loan program that helped her get back on her feet. On Thursday, the East Grand Forks native got a big hug from the commander-in-chief.

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“I said ‘I’m sorry, I’m at a loss of words,’ and he took my hand and he said ‘Ooh c’mere give me a hug’ and he gave me a big hug,” she said, still thrilled by the whole thing. “That’s how personable he was.”

Gill-Nelson now works as a nurse in Daytona Beach, Fla. She was invited to hear the president speak at Valencia College in Orlando and brought her daughter Erica Thomsen, 19.

The pair were among the few chosen to visit with Obama before the speech, which was delivered to a crowd of more than 100.

“She was totally floored like I was.” Gill-Nelson said of her Thomsen’s response. “We didn’t expect any of this today.”

Obama spoke on the theme of economic equality, especially for women who earn, on average, 77 percent of what men earn. Women make up more than half of the workforce and more than half of college graduates, so the country as a whole has a stake in them being paid a fair wage, he argued.

“So this is a family agenda,” he said. “But it starts with making sure that every woman is getting a fair shot.  It’s time for a woman’s economic agenda that grows our economy for everybody.”

Getting help

It’s a theme that resonates with Gill-Nelson, who quit her longtime job in child-protection services a few years ago to get a nursing degree from Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks.

She said starting as a new nurse meant being at the bottom of the pay scale while paying off college loans. The federal Income-Based Repayment program, which allows those with college debt to repay at a level they can afford, helped her out a lot, especially as a single mom, she said.

Thomsen is the youngest of her four daughters.

After Gill-Nelson wrote the president to praise the IBR program, she said, he wrote a personal reply.

Obama’s agenda

On Thursday, Obama urged Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, which he said would help the “disproportionate number” of women in low-paying jobs.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would make it easier for women to sue an employer for paying them less than men doing comparable jobs. Critics say the law isn’t needed because women can be underpaid by choice, for example choosing a workplace that pays less but has family-friendly policies.

Obama also urged Congress to require employers to offer paid leaves of absence to take care of children or parents.

The president said the issue is personal to him, being raised by a single mother who put herself through school while raising two children. His grandmother, the main breadwinner in the family, hit a glass ceiling training men who would be her boss but never given the promotion herself, he said.

Gill-Nelson said she agreed with everything the president said.

Of the experience, she said, “It was fantastic, more than I ever expected.”

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Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is content editor for the Herald. He began work at the newspaper in 1999 as a reporter and has covered business, City Hall, higher education and science. Before his current position, he served as night editor. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
(701) 780-1248
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