WE were there
McNair Scholars witness history
By Jennifer Hannigan, photography by Myles Thomas
As the sun rose on a cold Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., the capital city crackled with excitement. On Jan. 20, nearly two million people crowded the National Mall, prepared to watch history unfold before their eyes. Among the bundled multitude was a group of 10, the University’s McNair Scholars, who were given the opportunity of a lifetime when they were invited to the inauguration of Barack Obama.
Established to help first-generation college students and groups underrepresented in graduate school, the McNair Program urges participants to continue post-baccalaureate studies, including graduate school and doctoral studies. “One of the things we offer is cultural experiences,” says Dr. Linda Thompson, director of the McNair Program. “It usually consists of going to the opera in Memphis, which is a little lower ticket item than going to the inauguration in D.C.”
As a part of a group invited by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, Thompson and her students arrived in D.C. two days before the inauguration. Monday morning, the group was able to tour downtown D.C. and to meet one of Arkansas’ senators. “I had called Senator Blanche Lincoln, and her office had extra tickets,” says Thompson. “We could pick them up Monday before the inauguration.”
After spending an hour and a half waiting in line to enter the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the students were able to meet and eat with Senator Lincoln. “She had coffee cakes, breads, and a chocolate-molded Capitol building,” says Thompson. “By this time it was 3 p.m., and the snacks were the pick-me-up we needed.”
Inauguration Day, the group was bundled and ready to enter the city at 4:30 a.m. “By 5:30 a.m. we were in line, and by 9:30 a.m. we were finally across the street and into the general area where our tickets were,” says Thompson.
In the cold and crowds, maneuvering became difficult. “The streets were flooded with people, but they were very friendly,” says senior Jeremy Townsend of Schaumburg, Ill. “With everyone so bundled up, it was hard to tell if you were with the right group.”
After they entered the ticketed area, junior Myles Thomas of Cypress, Texas, and Townsend found a better view for the group, about 50 yards closer than where they had been. “We got a really good view,” says Townsend. “We were in front of the Reflecting Pool, and we could see (Obama). He was really small, but we could see him.”
Looking back toward the Washington Monument, they could see the crowd packed behind them and a sea of American flags. “The spirit of the people was so noticeable,” says Elizabeth Davis, a junior from Mount Orab, Ohio. “Everyone was so happy and proud to be an American.”
The sense of closeness with the surrounding crowd was unmistakable. “An older lady was standing beside us, and we could hear her talking on her phone,” remembers Thompson. “She said, ‘Oh, I’m just here with two million of my best friends.’ That was the feeling we had.”
Inauguration Day events included notable performances by Aretha Franklin, Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. “Then, Obama got up to speak and be sworn in,” says Thompson. “I couldn’t believe how quiet the crowd was and how well we could hear everything.”
Once the inauguration was over, the McNair scholars, tired and cold, returned to their hotel and left for Arkansas the next day. “We got back (to the University) in the middle of the night and went to classes a few hours later,” says Townsend. “I was very tired and was a little sick afterward, but it was worth it.”
Although conditions may not have been ideal, the importance of the day was recognized. “They may remember that they were cold, but that fades,” says Thompson. “They may remember that they stood in long lines, and there were jillions of people, but that fades. But they will remember they were there. It was truly a special moment in our nation’s history.”