It was 1:15 p.m. on June 20 when my plane touched down at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
I had just seen my first aerial view of the Marble City: the green Mall sprawling between the Potomac and the Capitol, Lincoln gazing gravely into the reflecting pool, and, in the distance, the flat rectangle of the Kennedy Center. I was inspired even before I stepped off the plane.
As a 2009 Presidential Scholar in the Arts, I'd been flown from Albany to Washington for National Recognition Week: four days of performances, lectures, banquets, charity events and receptions. None of the 141 presidential scholars knew whether we would get to meet President Obama during our stay in Washington. Upon arrival at our Georgetown University dorms, we learned that the president would be in meetings all week. We were a little consoled by the fact that Vice President Biden had been scheduled to meet with us at the White House but, needless to say, we were still disappointed. As the day progressed, however, I realized this was going to be an incredible trip "" Obama or no Obama.
It's exciting and daunting to be surrounded by the nation's most promising youth. President Lyndon Johnson founded the United States Presidential Scholars Program in 1964 to "celebrate some of the nation's most distinguished graduating high school seniors." In 1979, President Carter expanded the program to honor up to 20 students for excellence in the arts.
About 3,000 of the 3 million high school students taking SATs or ACTs each year are invited to apply on the basis of their high scores. From those students, 121 are selected: two from each state, two from the District of Columbia, two from Puerto Rico, and two Americans abroad, plus 15 deserving students from any state, district or territory.
The application process is long and difficult, requiring detailed essays on a variety of subjects and an impressive school and extracurricular transcript.
The 20 Presidential Scholars in the Arts are invited to apply by the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts based on interviews, performances and a portfolio, and are selected from a pool of 60 applicants. Among the 20 Arts Scholars were classical and jazz singers and musicians, actors, sculptors, a cinematographer, photographers, a painter, dancers and writers. I was selected for my poetry.
It's easy to imagine, then, how intimidated the Arts Scholars were by the academic crowd, with their lofty IQs and loaded resumes. I met people who, by age 17, had disproved long-held scientific theories, started companies and started international foundations for humanitarian aid. It was a complete honor to be in their company.
Perhaps the most unique honor I received was having my poetry displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The work of the visual and literary arts scholars was displayed in a monthlong exhibition, and the writers gave a reading at the museum. Later in the week, the performing arts scholars performed on the stage of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts for a packed house, followed by a reception on the building's roof. It was incredible to be sharing our art with so many people, to be surrounded by such talent, to be told by innumerable Presidential Scholar geniuses after our performances, "I wish I could do what you do." There was a communal feeling of amazement among all the scholars all the time; we respected and admired each other.
We were also addressed by some of our nation's most inspiring, influential people: Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Personal Aide and Special Assistant to the President Reggie Love, 2008 National Teacher of the Year Michael Geisen and Deputy Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives Dr. Fred Beuttler, to name a few.
Before saying sad farewells and boarding the plane back to Albany on June 24, I went to the Capitol for an exclusive photo opportunity with our district congressman, Scott Murphy. We talked briefly and I learned that he, too, was a Presidential Scholar years ago. We discussed how great the program was, how gifted young people can be, and how immeasurably inspiring my week had been.
Maggie Millner is a 2009 graduate of Cherry Valley-Springfield Central School.