Local students Jenna Phillips, Araceli Islas and Alexandra Diaz will never forget the 2009 Inauguration of President Barack Obama.
They were merely miles — feet, in Jenna’s case — from the new president, three of only a handful of local students privileged to see it in Washington, D.C., with the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference.
While the 7,500-strong inauguration-inspired conference, which ran Jan. 19-21, was “a good experience,” the true celebration came when they went to the Capitol to see the inaugural ceremony.
The weather was “freezing,” but the sheer number of people kept Jenna Phillips warm as she witnessed Obama’s swearing-in merely 300 feet from the inaugural platform.
Phillips, a 15-year-old Ironwood Ridge High School student, was able to sneak in and view the ceremony from a special “silver-ticket section” after her group found their first meeting place, miles from the White House, blocked and deserted.
“We weren’t going to let that stop us. We were determined to see the ceremony … we needed to get closer,” she said. “To get through the crowd, my friends and I held hands so we wouldn’t lose one another. The crowd was so thick that I was truly afraid of being lost and never found.”
As they approached within hundreds of feet of the White House, they spotted a break in the crowd where security was letting people closer to the platform.
“The security guards asked for silver tickets. We waved our student conference tickets for them and they let us in, not knowing that we weren’t allowed.” She was “lucky to get in when I did … about two minutes later, the ceremony began.”
Conference roommates Islas and Diaz were not as fortunate. After finding their places blocked as well, the two 13-year-olds from Marana Middle School resorted to watching the ceremony from nearby buildings.
Even so, Islas could feel excitement of the crowd, watching a giant screen in the National Museum of the American Indian as America’s 44th president was sworn in mere miles away.
“Definitely, my favorite part was when Obama was sworn in,” Islas said. “I could feel the energy from the crowd — I felt bonded with them, like we were a family.
“We were connected because we were there for one cause. It was incredible to feel that with total strangers.”
The girls agreed that Chief Justice John Roberts’ slip during the swearing-in ceremony was “funny.”
“We thought that Obama had been the one to mess it up. We didn’t find out ‘til later that it was Roberts — it was pretty funny at the time,” Phillips said.
“Yeah, it was very humorous, we laughed,” Islas added, “but we didn’t think too much of it. I was thinking, ‘You know, 200 years ago, this would have never been possible. Now it is’.”
Diaz, who watched the ceremony from a nearby hotel, was a little shaken after handling a group separation and the temper of her group leader.
“We got separated, so I missed most of the ceremony,” she said, “but I got to see the swearing-in and Obama’s speech.”
Of all the inaugural events she witnessed, she “really got into” the president’s inaugural address. Watching it “made me feel like he really cared about the country,” she elaborated.
Though the three girls didn’t experience the inauguration together, all three used “hope,” “excitement” and “historic” to describe their feelings about the ceremony.
“Being so young and being able to go see the first African-American president sworn in was amazing,” Phillips said. “I definitely want to go to the next one.”
Of the Capitol on Inauguration Day, she remarked, “It was breathtaking and moving — the whole city was alive with celebrations of the inauguration.”
Islas summed up her experience as “miraculous,” while Diaz called hers “unforgettable – more than seeing the ceremony, I got to feel the reactions of the people.
“I will always remember seeing the human element of the inaugural ceremony and how it brought the entire country together for one moment. I felt a rush of hope and excitement in the people.”
Islas said that the ceremony was “more of a celebration than any other inauguration I can remember — it was a celebration of change.”
“It was sad leaving the bonding and happiness I felt and going back to the real world.”