The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program was established by executive order of the President fifty years ago this month. The program recognizes and honors some of our nation’s most distinguished graduating high school seniors and was expanded in 1979 to recognize students who demonstrate exceptional talent in the visual, creative, and performing arts.
Each year, 141 students are named as Presidential Scholars, one of the nation’s highest honors for high school students.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the program, ED has collected reflections from past winners, who explain how the program influenced their life and career.
Cornelia A. Clark, Class of 1968
In 1968, as a then-resident of Atlanta, Georgia, I was honored to be named a Presidential Scholar from Georgia. That June, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the assassinations of both Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy coincided with the Poor People’s Campaign and the construction of Resurrection City. This was when I visited the Supreme Court, Congress, and the White House for the first time and got a close-up political view of a country in the midst of crisis at home and abroad. President Lyndon B. Johnson told our class of scholars that we represented the best and brightest hope for the future of the world, and that we must live the rest of our lives in a way that would honor the recognition we received.
I have carried that challenge with me throughout my career. Each time I have accomplished something meaningful in my personal or professional life, President Johnson’s words have come back to me, especially during the time from September 1, 2010 — August 31, 2012, when I served as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. I believe that that achievement, as well as many others, came in part because of the encouragement I received in 1968.
For me, the distinction as Presidential Scholar was life changing. Each year now I locate at least one new scholar who resides near me and tell her why I hope it will be for her as well.
Cornelia A. Clark is a former Justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court
Sankar Swaminathan, Class of 1975
Many years later, when I look back at having been a Presidential Scholar, I still see the long hair and dated clothes that we were wearing. It was 1975, and Washington D.C. and the nation were still in turmoil from the effects of Watergate. Despite the politics of that summer, being invited to the White House was a great honor for all of us. I think the students and their parents were somewhat awed by being guests at the State Department and visiting the Rose Garden. But I also remember that it was a lot of fun.
What does it mean to have been a Presidential Scholar? Few people know what it represents, but when they see it in your CV, many ask about it. I tell them, with a little embarrassment, that it is given to two high school students chosen from every state, to honor scholastic and personal achievement.
At the time, as a seventeen year old, I was very grateful for the award and activities of those few days. I remember my fellow Scholars as excited to be there, and despite having received this prestigious award, being very down-to-earth and friendly. It inspired me to be worthy of being chosen to be among them, and to continue to try to meet such interesting, intellectually engaged and morally committed people. There really were a lot of idealists at that time. I hope that today’s awardees feel as fondly about the experience in forty years as I do today.
Sankar Swaminathan is a Don Merrill Rees Presidential Endowed Chair and Professor of Medicine and Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Department of Medicine at University of Utah School of Medicine
Christine Théberge Rafal, Class of 1984
Our local newspaper interviewed me about my selection as one of New Hampshire’s 1984 Presidential Scholars. An angry principal called me to the office for the first time in my life: “What? You never thought of yourself as an intellectual because your school doesn’t support intellectuals?”
“Well, morning announcements only ever mention my track performances, never my math meet scores, which are much better,” I replied.
My mother reported that the conversation made a difference for my younger brother and schoolmates in subsequent years, with the school making real efforts to acknowledge academic accomplishments.
Spending Recognition Week in alphabetical order by state, I made lifelong friendships with scholars from Nebraska and Nevada. The student from Nevada and I founded a little Presidential Scholar “posse”. We went to the same college together and stayed in touch over the summer, went to a movie as a group every Sunday night for all four years at college, and a couple of us even went to the same grad school! When a family friend from across the river in Maine was selected and didn’t want to go to Recognition Week, I persuaded him of the value.
Girls and women with ADHD, especially undiagnosed for years (decades) as mine was, often have low self-esteem, but having been a Presidential Scholar, whether anyone else knows it or not, has helped me emphasize my abilities instead.
Christine Théberge Rafal, is a Coordinator for Grants and Evaluation for Artists for Humanity, a non-profit that provides under-resourced youth with paid employment opportunities in the arts
Virgil Calejesan, Class of 1998
It’s an interesting exercise to think back 16 years ago. I find what I remember best are the people – particularly my fellow scholars and our leaders from prior award years that spirited us along from event to event.
I also viscerally recall a string of late nights, constantly amazed by my peers, trying to make connections at every unscheduled moment. I recall standing in line, though that too was quite fun given the company. I remember falling asleep wearing sunglasses at the Degas, At the Races in the Countryside exhibition and awakening to a museum-goer commenting “Pretty amazing, right?” What is amazing is how comfortable that couch was. Did they know I was asleep for the preceding 15 minutes?
If I could sum up National Recognition Week in a word, it would be “honored.” I still have a hard time believing that I deserved such an award, chosen on the basis of “outstanding scholarship, service, leadership, and creativity.” If I’ve learned anything in 16 years, it’s that those words are not achievements frozen in time, but rather a reflection of character. And if I am to accept that honor, then I must also accept the implicit responsibility to continue to deserve it.
That is what sticks with me to this day. And when I think of that museum-goer, maybe, in fact, they weren’t talking about Degas; maybe they somehow knew the impact the Presidential Scholar experience would have on me after all these years.
And they were right: It is truly amazing.
Virgil Calejesan is a designer living in Brooklyn, NY, who specializes in helping to create aerospace safety garments
Nigel Campbell, Class of 2004
(Nigel Campbell’s account is provided courtesy of the U.S. Presidential Scholars Alumni Association.)
Nigel Campbell began studying dance at age 12 at Creative Outlet Dance Theater of Brooklyn. He attended The Julliard School and embarked on his professional dance career after graduation. Here’s how he responds, in part, when asked what stands out the most in his memory about his National Recognition Week trip to Washington, D.C., after being named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts.
“Wow, it was an honor unlike any other,” he recalls. “People – artists – work their entire lives to try to get to perform at the Kennedy Center.”
“And here I was at 17, performing a solo to a packed, sold-out audience with the President and the Secretary of Education and my entire family. And a standing ovation. It was one of those really magical moments that you relive in your head throughout your life. This was, by far, the most special moment of a week that was filled with a lot of really special moments.”
“Being recognized by the Presidential Scholars Program imbued me with a sense of confidence and a sense of my self-worth at a very early age. It really was the affirmation that I really could do this in a real way – that I could do all of the things that I’m doing now.”
Nigel Campbellis a member of Sweeden’s GoteborgsOperans Danskompani, the largest modern dance company in the Nordic region.