WASHINGTON – Melinda Pearl spent a busy week, meeting with leading policymakers and journalists, engaging in a mock presidential election and enjoying a cruise on the Potomac River.
But Thursday’s presidential swearing-in was clearly the high point of the week for the Bethesda Chevy Chase High School senior.
“It was so good,” said Melinda, 17, who had a ticket to inaugural that put her in the standing area of the Capitol nearest the president.
Melinda was one of 10 Maryland students who came to Washington this week as part of the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference, a quadrennial event that this year brought 600 high-school students from across the country to the nation’s capital.
The weeklong conference is sponsored by the Congressional Youth Leadership Council, a non-profit educational organization that taps high-achieving students who are nominated by teachers and guidance counselors for the annual National Young Leaders Conference.
Alumni of the annual conference who are chosen for the inaugural conference get to participate in inaugural activities and learn about pressing domestic and foreign issues from experts and government and military officials.
Mary O’Malley, 17, of Hagerstown, said she learned how to debate and support her opinions during the conference.
“It forced me to come out of my shell,” said O’Malley, a junior at Mercersburg Academy. “I’m better at defending my opinions, politically, religiously, or whatever.”
Ashley Pastor, 17, from Carroll County, called the weeklong conference a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about the presidency.” The senior at Liberty High School in Sykesville drew inspiration from members of the Bush family and administration, watching intently as first lady Laura Bush was introduced Thursday amid cheers from the crowd.
“She hasn’t done much as other first ladies, but I admire her,” Ashley said. “She knows her place, lays low and supports her husband.”
But it was a top administration official — Secretary of State-nominee Condoleeza Rice — who elicited the strongest response from Ashley, who said she hopes to become an intelligence analyst after college.
“She is awesome,” Ashley said of Rice. “She’s smart and strong, stepping up to be the secretary of state. I hope she runs for president.”
Ashley and her friends rooted when Bush took the oath, but were annoyed when a protestor walked around holding up a white T-shirt that read, “Bush is lying.”
“Get them out of here,” said Mary, the Hagerstown student who is also a Bush supporter. She said she was “looking forward to the inaugural address,” to hear Bush’s plans for Iraq, homeland security and health care.
Melinda said “it was so disrespectful” for protestors who screamed anti-Bush chants during the speech.
“I would never do that. I would never protest during the speech,” she said.
But Shannon Paige, 17, a senior at Towson Catholic High School, did not seem to mind because Bush “said what I’ve already heard, a reiteration of his policies.”
She faulted Bush for not doing an adequate job on the treatment of minorities, particularly on civil rights, as well as poverty and unemployment.
“It seems like what he’s saying he is not actually doing,” Shannon said.
Melinda, a self-described conservative, said she has “opened up to a lot of different viewpoints” across the political spectrum as a result of the conference. But, unlike Shannon, she was still thrilled by the president’s speech.
“I loved the inauguration speech,” she said. “It was really directed to the young people and it gave hope and inspiration to young Americans.”
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