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.

Past Presidential Scholars Reflect on the Program’s 50th Anniversary

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

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The first class of Presidential Scholars in 1964. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Presidential Scholars Alumni Association)

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.