Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander may have been a mere few feet from President Barack Obama earlier this month, but 31 University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students were part of the first school-sponsored trip to extend participation in the historic occasion to the whole campus.
The group braved all-night bus rides and early-morning alarm clocks to be on the National Mall for the 57th inauguration.
A collaborative sponsorship from the Offices of Equality and Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, the Division of Student Development, the Women’s Center, and Fraternity and Sorority Life opened the opportunity to any student via an application process.
Students were asked to explain what attending the inauguration would mean to them. For senior Hannah Lazar, who is also the editor of the student newspaper, The University Echo, the trip served as a learning experience to cover a story on a national scale.
For junior JasLynn Murphy, who had been too young to vote in the 2012 election, the trip was a chance to throw her hat in the political arena.
“I was unable to vote for the president, and I wanted to show my support,” Murphy said. “Also, I haven’t been the most politically minded person. What better way to turn over a new leaf than with such a ceremonious event?”
The group’s travel schedule started at 10 p.m. the Saturday before the inauguration. The buses pulled into the Capitol, and the students set off on a day of sightseeing at the Smithsonian Museums, the Washington Monument and the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
The trip also included a visit with student leaders at George Washington University for a panel discussion of the event on Tuesday morning before heading back south.
Lazar, Murphy and their fellow students bunked at a 4-H center in Bethesda, Md. On the big day, the group was up at 3:15 a.m. to catch the 4 a.m. metro train into Washington, D.C., and stake out their spots. The early-morning troopers were rewarded with a place in the first non-ticketed standing section by the first Jumbotron.
“I kept saying we drove all this way to watch the inauguration on TV,” Lazar joked. “But being there, you could feel the energy and excitement. People were chanting ‘USA’ and ‘Obama’ and waving flags.”
Both Murphy and Lazar cited the president’s speech as the portion of the program to impact them the most.
Lazar said she was struck by how political he chose to be, opting for pointed remarks about those on the other side of the aisle and spotlights on specific topics he wants to address in his second term rather than the standard but vague speech about the need to work together. Her editorial on the trip ran in this week’s edition of The Echo.
For Murphy, Obama’s speech stood as an unforgettable marker in a more personal history.
“One hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the March on Washington, I can see what we as black people were fighting for,” she said. “Obama’s words were the guidelines for what America should be striving for.”
Both students have high hopes for the next four years, including issues such as bolstering the middle class, marriage equality, a stronger public education system, a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens and measures to decrease violence in American communities.
The hope for more intelligent-and productive-conversation in the Capitol was also a change for which the students will be watching.
“Mostly, what I hope happens is that the ridiculousness in Washington can stop,” Lazar said. “A lot of what [Obama] was calling out [was] Washington politics for being absolutist and ideological. No one looks at issues in an adult, mature, conversational basis. Everything comes down to the fundamental role of government. What I want to see is a rebirth of rationality.”