Several thousand high school students who filled Xavier’s Convocation Center on Friday had a message for the visiting senator from New Jersey.

“Run, Cory, run!” they chanted.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker joked later that they thought he was overweight and needed some exercise.

But Booker then turned serious and confirmed that he is indeed weighing whether to join what is expected to be a crowded field of Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election.

“I’m encouraged by the response as I travel the country,” Booker told several reporters after talking to the students.

In December, Booker said he would make up his mind by January. He has already visited Iowa and New Hampshire — the site of the first two presidential primary contests — one of many signs that he will indeed run.

With reporters, Booker put the blame for the government shutdown on President Donald Trump and called on the president to take steps to reopen government. The shutdown is the longest in history, at 28 days and counting as of Friday.

“People are suffering now,” Booker said.

Earlier, Booker and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, fired up the students — who had come to Xavier under the auspices of Inspire NOLA Charter Schools — with stories of growing up while facing hardships and challenges.

Richmond said he grew up in New Orleans East, the son of a schoolteacher. He said he attended several high schools because he was thrown out of more than one. Richmond was elected to the state House in 1999 after losing on his first try, and to the U.S. House in 2010.

Booker said he grew up as the son of a man who was constantly challenged by the low expectations that others had for him. Booker said his father never let that stop him, adding that his dad became the first salesman for IBM in the Virginia area before settling in New Jersey.

The senator challenged the students to not be passive.

“The opposite of justice is not injustice. It’s apathy,” he said. “We still live in a country where the power of the people is greater than the people in power.”

Booker, who served as mayor of Newark before he was elected to the Senate, described a sting operation by a fair-housing group that exposed a racist real-estate agent who tried to prevent his parents from buying a house in a traditionally white neighborhood. That group inspired him, he said, just as he hoped to inspire the students on Friday.

"If you decide who you are and what you stand for, you liberate others to do so as well,” he said. “By you standing up and challenging and inspiring others, that’s how our nation changes. If we work together, this nation will rise.”

Afterward, Booker posed with students for selfies on the stage and then climbed into the bleachers to visit with more students.

Niricha Williams, a junior at Booker T. Williams High School, was among those who took a photo with Booker.

“He is a positive role model,” Williams said, adding that she liked how the senator described his struggle and his father’s struggle.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.