By Marlys Kruger
Although many of us would like to say we had the opportunity to see at least one president in person in our lifetime, Colfax High School sophomore Matt Shaw can already make that claim to fame. After receiving not just one, but two invitations to President Barack Obama’s inauguration festivities through two different leadership organizations, Matt accepted one from the National Young Leaders State Conference and spent five days in Washington D.C., interacting with historians, political experts and leading decision makers who discussed presidential politics.
Matt was chosen to attend after participating in a leadership conference in November of 2011 in Minneapolis. (His other invitation came from the National Society of High School Scholars).
Following a busy schedule all five days, Matt’s journey started when he arrived in the nation’s capital Saturday, Jan. 19. After flying in with his older brother Eric, who was familiar with the area after living there a few years earlier, Matt heard a welcoming speech by program director Amanda Freitag and along with the large group of students (around 1,900) they were entertained by a musical/comedy group called “The Capitol Steps”.
On Sunday, the students were divided into groups of six for some leadership activities, then they gathered up again to hear former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speak.
“She talked about Exploring Leadership and the Insider’s Perspective on the American Presidency,” Matt said.
They then viewed the movie “All the President’s Men”, which for those of you who were around in the 1970s, know that it deals with then President Richard Nixon and the famous Watergate Hotel scandal.
“We had a discussion with Mr. Nick Clooney, a journalist who was the moderator and Mr. Bob Woodward, who was one of the reporters for the Washington Post that brought the story out in the open,” Matt said.
The big day (Inauguration Day), started around 3:45 a.m. for Matt and his fellow scholars. They toured the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at 7:00, then traveled by bus to the National Mall at 8:00. With the President’s speech not scheduled until 11:30, Matt had plenty of time, but not a lot of space, to wander around.
“We were standing the whole time from when we got to the mall until after his speech,” Matt said. “But standing among a half a million people and hearing them all chanting for Obama at the same time was just an awesome feeling. We were pretty far back from where he was speaking but they had a big screen to watch and we could hear him just fine.It was an experience I’ll always remember,” he added.
Returning to the Gaylord National Hotel, they watched the Presidential motorcade drive down Pennsylvania Ave. via large viewing screens, then spent the rest of the day and evening listening to live entertainment.
The conference wasn’t over yet however, as Matt had the opportunity to hear former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Four Star General and presidential candidate General Wesley Clarke speak on Tuesday about leadership on and off the battlefield. A Gala Inaugural Celebration followed for all the students at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy center and Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
After a final meeting and discussion with his group on Wednesday, Matt left for home. His plane arrived a little late due to a 225 mile per hour headwind but that didn’t change his opinion on his overall experience.
“This was just a great five days for me,” he said. “Even though I’m not all that interested in politics, I learned so much from all the speakers I heard, about leadership, the electoral process and the traditions of the inauguration. And I met so many people who had the same interests as me. If anyone ever has a chance to attend something like this, I highly recommend doing it. It’s something I will always remember.”
Although the trip was not free, Matt worked on the family farm (in between playing football, wrestling and playing in the jazz band), and received several donations by both individuals and local organizations. In return, he will share his experience with the Colfax Women’s Club, the Colfax Kiwanis, the Menomonie Sunrise Rotary and Menomonie Lions Club.