2014 U.S. Presidential Scholars Reflect on Their Experiences

The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program was established by executive order of the President 50 years ago. 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 Presidential Scholars, one of the nation’s highest honors for high school students.

In a previous post, as part of the 50th anniversary of the program, ED collected reflections from past winners. Now we look at reflections from current winners who recently experienced their National Recognition Program.

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First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a group photo with Presidential Scholars in the East Room of the White House, June 23, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Erika Carrera, U.S. Presidential Scholar from Nevada

The Presidential Scholars Program was, without a doubt, the best program I have had the privilege and honor of participating in. I was able to create a permanent connection with so many outstanding individuals, from all across the United States. I learned about other cultures and customs. Although we were all different, we had a unique bond and  unique stories to tell. This program taught me that everyone holds different values and ideas; yet when we come together, it is our differences — our viewing the world from dissimilar perspectives — that helps us solve the problems we face.

Being a Presidential Scholar is something I will keep with me for the rest of my life. I only hope to be able to return in future years to help another generation of scholars on their path toward success.

Michael Chen, U.S. Presidential Scholar from Colorado

My favorite part of the National Recognition Program was the diversity of talents and passion that I saw within each individual scholar and in the group as a whole. The incredible performances by the Arts Scholars and the unique presentations of talent at the talent show on the last day, really exemplify what it means to be a Presidential Scholar: we are a group that can succeed at anything we put our minds to. Indeed, I am looking forward to hearing about the amazing things that all of you will do in the future! #psp4life

Ray Lu, U.S. Presidential Scholar from Texas

The National Recognition Program was an experience I will never forget–considering all of the amazing people I met, experiences I had, and thoughts I shared. From inspired and brilliant peers, to congressmen and the First Lady herself, each and every person had a profound impact on me, in terms of understanding other people, recognizing the nuances of the world around us, and discovering more about my passions. The fellow Presidential Scholars I encountered were some of the most engaging individuals I had ever held conversations with, and we had much in common through our virtues and values in life. The Program itself was a catalyst for us to create this network of people that could serve as both a support system and a friend group. Lastly, the pensive atmosphere was enhanced by the questions we asked and the answers we gave in return. The most lasting memory from my time in DC will be a conversation I had late at night on the final day with 20 fellow Scholars. We shared our future goals and gave thoughtful answers to the question, “Why were we selected as Presidential Scholars?” The responses opened my eyes in terms of perspective, and I realized, at the very end, how humanizing the entire process was. In essence, my time at the National Recognition Program was not only a moment of celebration, but also a vivid period of growth as I turn to face what the future holds.

Michael Mei, U.S. Presidential Scholar from Pennsylvania

We met. All fifty states rolled from our tongues and suddenly we felt everywhere at once. We savored the taste of that complete and eclectic cornucopia of places. We relished the “Oh, you know him!?” and the “What’s it like out there?” alike. We knew as we talked that each of us harbored remarkable stories and had done remarkable things. And we knew that even the piles of accolades upon which we sat could not come close to defining us completely. We were defined by our smiles, our reckless aspirations, our passionate and unwavering voices. And we were defined by the solemn and bursting pride with which we received an award, meant not just for us, but also for our parents, friends, and communities. As we stood at the East Room of the White House in our best attire, we had the sense of having arrived, not at a final peak, but at a sort of springboard to higher summits. Some inexplicable and wildly sure sense of hope. And as our senators took the podium and urged us to political engagement, we silently pledged ourselves to new and daunting responsibilities. Most memorable? Seeing the Presidential Arts Scholars perform at the Kennedy Center: their show, at once electric and contemplative, moved some of us to tears. Dances and stanzas poured with terrifying spontaneity, sometimes unfathomable and discomforting (as art should be) but always virtuosic. A performance, I learned, is different when the people on stage are not only the premier young artists of the country, but also good friends. Then, all too soon, the final night: “See all those kids fist-pumping and going crazy?” Someone marveled. “They’re some of the best students in the country.”

Aaron Orbey, U.S. Presidential Scholar from Massachusetts

Having never before toured D.C., I enjoyed the distinct pleasure of visiting our Capitol with such humble and humbling, such inspired and inspiring, new friends—artistic scholars and scholarly artists alike. Exciting too, was the guidance of past scholars serving as advisors, whose presence reminded me that this network of awesome people will continue to grow and stay with us. I don’t ever want to forget the hush of voices as the First Lady strolled into the East Room or the tessellating of shadows on the Kennedy Center stage as the lights dimmed and an audience, enraptured, erupted into applause. But I’m not worried because I think I’ll always remember. And I’m so grateful for the experience.