USSYP delegates meet with President Obama

A copy of the Congressional record in which Senator Boozman added a tribute specifically for my accomplishments.  It recognized me as a “youth leader” on March 2nd, 2010, during the 112th Congress, 1st Session.

Adviser’s note – Colby Qualls, Hoof Prints editor, was selected as one of Arkansas’s two delegates to the U.S. Senate Youth Program in Washington, D.C. From March 5-12, he will be blogging about his experience and it will be posted here.

March 9, 2011

COLBY QUALLS – Hoof Prints Editor

Today I will start off by saying that Wednesday, March 9, 2011, has been one of the greatest days of my life. Have I enjoyed the other days? Of course. I have loved every single minute in D.C. But this day has been, and very might remain, the peak of my trip. I suppose I will write this blog with the precedent I have set so far, to start from the very beginning.

I believe I mentioned yesterday that we were able to sleep in late. Well, this morning we could sleep in even later. It seems too good to be true, I know. Yet, just like yesterday, somehow I managed to be rushed. Today I was even closer to missing breakfast than yesterday. Yikes. Let me explain though. When I say I almost missed breakfast, I really mean I am not down there at the designated time. We are actually encouraged to be outside the doors 10 minutes before they are scheduled to open. It is an obligation, though, to be outside by the time they open or your military mentor will track you down. These past two days I walk up like a minute before they open.

Anyway, breakfast was used as a time to chill. I say this because there was not a scheduled speaker. I love listening to these wonderful speakers, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes it’s harder to focus immediately after you awake to a discussion over foreign policy for example.

Once we finished our tranquil meal, we loaded our buses for the White House. As I looked around, all of the other delegates were jittery. They seemed more vibrant, more nervous, and more jumpy. I couldn’t blame them. A surge of adrenaline was starting to run through my veins. We each were getting closer to meeting the leader of the free world:  President Barack Obama. What would he be like? What would I say if he spoke to me? So many thoughts ran through my head. The most important thing, I told myself, was to not embarrass myself at all costs.

As you would suspect, getting into the White House is an ordeal. By this time in the week though, I had gotten used to going through metal detectors, showing my government id, and being scanned with a wand. Actually I believe I will be thrown off when I go back home where I don’t have to be questioned just to enter rooms. I digress though. The White House security was a little more detailed than the previous destinations. At one point they asked me my birthday. That threw me for a loop because I wasn’t suspecting that question. Luckily I wasn’t too nervous and I remembered so that I wouldn’t be barred from the White House.

We were directed into the East Wing. In case you do not know, the East Wing is where the First Lady’s office, staff, and other welcoming officials are located. I would suggest further reading on the expanded role of the First Lady. It’s fascinating.

While waiting in the East Wing, we actually spotted a celebrity. It turns out that Kal Penn is a staff member of the White House. I honestly didn’t know this. If you are not sure of whom Kal Penn is, just think of the movies Harold and Kumar, also the television series “House.” In the series “House,” his character was specifically killed off because he gave his notice to work under the Obama administration. Once he was recognized, the whole delegation swarmed him. He didn’t seem to really care though. He answered most of the questions with a smile, entertained us, and shook our hands. I learned that he plans to work at the White House for a total of two years before he tries film again. This was an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

Finally, after it seemed like the Earth had fully revolved around the Sun, we were able to take our tour of the White House. Now, let me mention that this was not the occasion we would meet the POTUS. We had a specific time in the day we would come back in order for him to take a photo with us, say a few words, and probably get back to official business.

The tour of the White House though was still great. So much history lies behind the walls. Like, I learned the seal of the President shows the eagle head pointing towards the olive branch. Congress changed this specifically to perpetuate that we are a peaceful nation. The actual seal of our country faces towards either arrows or olive branch depending on the state our country is in, such as war or peace. You may find this stuff boring, but I was hooked. The tour was slightly brief because everything is on a schedule.

We then zoomed to the state department. I was so disappointed when I learned Secretary Clinton would not be present. When we pulled up, we saw her motorcade leave. Can you blame her though? With current demonstrations in Cairo and Libya, I am surprised she even sleeps. Instead we listened to Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, Maria Otero. She is a powerful, confident, and charismatic woman. She spoke about how our nation encourages democracy abroad, human rights for women and people in general, and how we balance our position with China. Those who love foreign policy ate it up. I liked it as well, but I wasn’t enamored like some.

Returning to the White House, we all knew we would be in the presence of President Obama in an hour. I felt a little embarrassed. My body was slightly trembling, sweat was forming on my palms, and my stomach was doing somersaults. It didn’t make sense to me though. I am not really an Obama fan. I never have been, doubt I ever will be. Yet for some reason, I felt like a little girl going to a Justin Bieber concert. For the photo, all 104 delegates had to squeeze onto three risers. It reminded me of choir or an elementary music class.

We were positioned based on our height, except for the states of Illinois and Hawaii. They were specifically set in the center so they can be close to Obama. You may wonder why they got this privilege. Well, Hawaii is his birth state, and Illinois is the state he represented in the Senate. Anyway, this may be surprising, but I am actually one of the semi-shorter delegates attending this trip. If you asked me, many of the delegates are giants towering over me. I thought I was decently tall, but now I think otherwise. It seems God smiled on me again. Somehow when we were filtering for the photo, I ended up right by Hawaii and right below Illinois. It seems my size and height came in handy. I would be only one person away from the President in the picture! I was even closer than Illinois. Bahahaha!

I don’t think I should have to describe 104 delegates impatiently waiting for the POTUS stuck in a room, when a majority idolizes this man. All eyes were stuck on every single movement in the hallway. We could hardly contain ourselves. Finally, he appeared. The whole crowd was hushed. I feel silly for using this term, but President Obama has a swagger. Believe me, I would never use that term lightly. I find it to be a silly word, but that is what it was. It was a confident swag. My heart was beating a thousand times per second.

To be blatantly honest, it seemed surreal. Like we all know that the POTUS is real, but to actually see him is a different story. He gave us a small maybe five minute little pep talk before our picture. The basic “you’re great Americans… leaders of the future… blah blah blah.” Nothing incredibly special, but who cares? He could have read off a grocery list and I would have applauded. He has that type of an appeal.

We then took our photo, and he was able to answer two questions from our group. After that, he strode away. So we were in his presence maybe a total of 15 minutes. I’m not sure though on how much time actually passed. It’s possible that it was less than 15 minutes. I was slightly disappointed that he didn’t shake anyone’s hands. I understand the president is an important/busy person, but is a handshake that much of a deal? Even his attitude to be completely honest, was a little disinterested and aloof. Some were disappointed because we were told that when George W. Bush was president, he always made time to individually shake every delegate’s hand. I think it shows the underlying character of a person in small acts like that. Either way, being that close to President Obama was an experience I will never forget.

Straight from the White House, we headed back to the Capitol. We all shuffled in the Kennedy Caucus room for the third time this week. Our military mentors formed a line on one side of the room. All the delegates were expected to stay behind the mentor unless our names were called. This was the start of the annual reception for the Senators. In the two hour increment each delegate had a chance to meet the senators from their state. We would take a photo with them, talk for however long they wanted, and then go back behind the wall of military men.

The Hearst Foundation can’t force Senators to attend. So it’s possible that you could sit there for two hours without meeting your senators simply because they chose not to attend. Unfortunately, this was the case for a select few. I don’t understand how at least one of the two senators couldn’t attend for this single night. Oh well.

Fortunately for me, both of my senators attended. So I was able to meet Senator Mark Pryor and Senator John Boozman. If you do not know, they are of different parties. It turns out they are also different in personal styles. Senator Boozman seems very laid back and calm. He talked in a slow, deliberate manner. Senator Pryor, on the other hand, was energetic and had this big personality. Both were very friendly men. I was so excited to be able to meet them personally and have the opportunity to talk to them.

Senator Boozman actually had a little present for both Victoria Maloch, the other Arkansas delegate, and me. He had a tribute tagged into an official Congressional record detailing our excellence. We both have a copy that shows that we were recognized in Congress, written down permanently for all to see in the future. It is so humbling. I plan/hope to intern for Senator Boozman this summer. I believe I have a foot in the door now, and think I will be able to secure a place with little effort. Thank you Washington Week!

Those who attend and who do not attend also reveal something about the character of the senators. The president pro tempore of the Senate, from Hawaii, was present. I mention this because he is the oldest senator. As you could imagine, his health seemed poorer than the rest. Yet he made sure he was there to visit with his delegates. Other leaders though were not present. Senator Harry Reid and Senator Mitch McConnell were both conspicuously absent. Senator John McCain, John Cornyn, and both New York senators were absent.

I am not sure on the exact number, but it seemed 50/50 on those who were present and absent in the Senate. I heard Senator Barbara Boxer refuses to attend every year. The California delegates told me that she sent them each a nasty email in which she questioned the value of the USSYP. Wow.

There were some very famous senators present on the flip side. Senator John Kerry and Senator Scott Brown worked the room. Senator Rand Paul and Marco Rubio were present respectively. Senator Lisa Murkowski and Joe Liebermann were able to make it. Truly, it would be impossible for me to remember and name every senator that was present. I saw a lot of them though.

I thought this would be the end of the night. I was mistaken. Our agenda said we would have an informal dinner at the lowest level of the hotel. It also said we could wear casual clothing. FINALLY. I love formal clothing more than the next guy, but I was ready to slip on a pair of jeans. I had planned to grab a bite to eat, chat with those at my table, and then slip upstairs.

It turns out a dj was present with a miniature dance floor. If you know me, even slightly, you know I do not like to dance. Period. It just feels awkward and uncomfortable for me. Well, somehow these amazing delegates tricked me into joining them on the dance floor. Before long, I was fist pumping with the best of them. Well, maybe not fully accurate. Some of these delegates seem to be professional dancers. I was blown away. Also, some seemed to be awkward and nerdy when it came to movement. I decided it would be best to bunch up with that crowd when I busted a move.

I don’t think I have ever met such a large group of such caring individuals. I enjoy the presence of every delegate whether they are liberal, conservative, black, white, male, female, Southern, Northern, none of it matters. They feel the same as well. I think I have made friends across the United States for a lifetime.

It seems that sleeping late won’t work for tomorrow. We have to be at breakfast by 6 in the morning. Ugh. That means I will at least need to be up by 5:30 to get ready. That will be pushing it though. Either way, I know the trip will continue to get better. I do know that it’s starting to wind down. It has me split. This week has been arguably the best of my life. At the same time though, I do miss home, family, and friends. I also know that I have a week’s worth of work waiting on me.

I suppose you will hear more tomorrow. Which may be one of the last days of blogging. Looking at the agenda, it’s going to be really hard for me to pull off a blog for Friday. I actually am not sure if I will get any sleep that night. I guess we will see.