Obama Where are You? DC as a Presidential Scholar



When we met, fellow Presidential Scholars, you helped me piece together America.

When we met, you said your name, and I was too excited, too nervous, too intimidated, too eager, and too tired from the long plane flight to remember it, but I shook your hand anyway and told you mine.

When we met, I heard fifty states roll off your tongue. There were fifty ways to finish the sentence “Hi, I’m from —,” but it didn’t matter what you said, because you always said it with an overwhelming sense of pride and identity.

When we met, we were named the 51st class of U.S. Presidential Scholars. We were told that we would go out into the world and shape it for the better. We all looked at each other with a funny face, thinking “Me? Including me?” because we didn’t feel particularly presidential in our casual wear and sneakers. We couldn’t recall any serious accolades when we fumbled with elevator buttons, misplaced our program packets, and tried to make some sense of the Georgetown campus. In our minds, we were just a collection of absurdly remarkable stories.

Here we are – our presidential selves! Photo by the US Dept. of Education.

The Presidential Scholars Program recognizes some of the nation’s most distinguished graduating high school seniors, selecting two representatives from each state—one male and one female—and fifteen additional at-large representatives.

The first night, we dressed to impress for the Medallion Ceremony at the historic Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, sacrificing comfort for heels and enduring long waits for the bathroom to double check our picture-perfect hair. The mood was set by the grandeur of the neoclassical architecture; granite stairs led us to the arched entrance, where we were dwarfed by the magnificent columns and hanging chandeliers. As we filed into the hall in alphabetical order and took our seats, we assumed our most stately and dignified appearances, well aware that our overeager parents had their cameras positioned and ready. After the national anthem and a speech given by the U.S. Secretary of Education, we heard our names called aloud. Then, a handshake, a medallion dropped over our heads, a picture with the Secretary of Education, and it was done. Those thirty seconds represented seventeen years of relentless hard work and hopeful dreams, not only for us, but also for our parents, teachers, friends, and communities. The medals hung around our necks, heavy and shiny, and we were left feeling empowered to spring to even greater heights.

Medallion Jubilation
Medallion Jubilation

The Medallion Ceremony was just the beginning of a whirlwind of programming that had been planned for us. We participated in forums with peers as well as with national policy leaders, toured the National Mall, hosted a talent show, and got to know one another. The most anticipated event, though, was the White House tour. Speculation over whether we would meet President Obama ran rampant. With so many brilliant minds compressed into the same building, theories abounded.

“He has a meeting in the morning, but he should be free in the afternoon,” one said.

“Yeah, but rumor has it that he was seen at Chipotle the same time the scholars were at the White House last year…at least they met Michelle, though, so we probably won’t meet Michelle this year.”

“I looked through past pictures, and the Scholars from 2005 and 2010 got to meet the president. Maybe it’s in five year increments!”

Definitive answers to quell the gossip came after an early lunch. We were bussed to the Eisenhower Executive Building, where we lined up alphabetically to get through security. Even for a Texan, the summer D.C. heat was quite unbearable. By the time we finally made it indoors, our dresses and suits were sticky with perspiration, and our makeup was melting off our faces. Despite all the wishful thinking, we learned that neither the Obamas nor the Bidens could join us for a group picture this year. Our hearts were crushed, and disappointment wafted through us in burning waves, but we posed in front of the steps outside bearing smiles, grateful just to have one another.

Visiting Mr. Lincoln
Visiting Mr. Lincoln

The highlight of the program came after dinner, when we attended the Presidential Arts Scholars’ performance at the John F. Kennedy Center. The performance was truly artistic in every sense of the word—creative, compelling, captivating, a fluid mixture of technique and imagination, a spectacular display of emotional power in sound, in design, in movement, and in words. The performance consisted of an hour long collage of all art forms, a show which seamlessly merged visual, auditory and tactile art into a series of acts. Haunting notes played on the cello while dancers simultaneously offered their interpretations of the music with the shifting shapes of their bodies. In the next act, an author read aloud while an actor brought her words to life. Lastly, we listed to an original composition by a singer-songwriter. I was in awe of the genius I was surrounded by; the unbelievable talents of my fellow scholars were usually masked with humbleness and good-natured charm, yet on the stage, they were revealed in all their glory and beauty.

By morning, we headed our separate ways; some were meeting representatives on Capitol Hill, some were heading home, some were staying in D.C. for a few days as tourists. It was over all too soon, and our hurried farewells were said between bites of breakfast.

I had the opportunity to meet my Congressman on Capitol Hill later that day, and I could not have been more excited. My heels clicked on the pristine floor as I nervously marveled at the gold trashcans, the elegant staircases, the closed doors concealing important figures. I was greeted into my Congressman’s office, where I met his team of correspondents. They showed me a little room divided into eight or so cubicles overflowing with stacks of papers, where they worked doing everything from answering constituent concerns to researching new policies. I had just chatted with a legislative correspondent named Mary about her daily work, career advice, and life in Texas for no more than ten minutes when an intern suddenly rushed out of the office with a phone in hand, “An astronaut is on the phone!”

It seemed remarkable to me that an astronaut, was on the phone, but for everyone else in the office, this was not unusual. Mary explained to me that my Congressman’s district includes Space Center Houston and Johnson Space Center, so astronauts frequently contact the office. The phone was simply passed on to the designated spokesperson, just as the door to the Congressman’s office opened.

The Congressman shook my and congratulated me on my award. I was then led into his office, and Mary took our picture. I hazily recall inquiring if we could do a funny pose together, which he agreed on, and we spent a minute offering suggestions of amusing yet distinguished poses, finally settling on a back-to-back pose with crossed arms. I was too overwhelmed to remember the (probably embarrassing) small talk that we made afterwards, but I remember being asked about my recent stay in D.C. and my tentative college plans, and as I made my way to leave, he invited me to bring my family to his office next time.

Who's your representative?
Who’s your representative?

Perhaps it was the network of awesome peers, or the handshakes from so many dignitaries, or the revamped vows to myself to take on new responsibilities as a citizen scholar—whatever it was, by the time I left Capitol Hill, I felt truly presidential. I felt powerful and executive, honored and gracious, ready to face my four-year term as a college student with a sense of purpose.

Denise Kwong ’19 (denisekwong@college.harvard.edu) marvels at D.C. the same way eleven-year-old Harry Potter marvels at Hogwarts, but she feels more like Hermione Granger when she decides the Library of Congress is her new favorite place.