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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2009

Toledo area students watch history unfold

BY MEGHAN GILBERT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Max Schwiefert knew a year ago he would be witnessing history on inauguration day.

The 13-year-old followed the election closely, knowing he had a ticket to the swearing-in ceremony. But when he found out a year ago that he'd be going, Max didn't know he'd be witnessing the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president.

"It kind of marks a turning point in our country's history," said Max, who is an eighth-grade student at East Broadway Middle School. "He's the first African-American to be in the position. Maybe it will open minds a bit."

Max is one of more than 15,000 student leaders in the country who will head to the capital as part of the Congressional Youth Leadership Council.

As a member of the Junior Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference, he'll make the trip with other middle school students to witness the inauguration and take part in a series of events in the five-day conference that includes speakers such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Vice President Al Gore.

There are 59 scholars from Ohio in the middle school program and 57 from Michigan.

The council also has a high school conference in which Notre Dame Academy sophomore Holly Davis is participating. There are 203 of those high school students from Ohio and 139 from Michigan.

Miss Davis, 17, said it's an amazing opportunity and she can't wait to leave. She laughs that her parents are jealous she gets to attend. "They actually want to go in my suitcase," she said.

Some of Miss Davis' classmates will be in Washington on a class trip to see the inauguration; 52 girls from Notre Dame and 44 boys from St. Francis de Sales are going together.

Paige Sopko, a 17-year-old junior at Notre Dame, said many girls in the school closely followed the election even though they couldn't vote.

"During lunch, you would think girls would talk about things other than politics, but we really did get into heated discussions about who we were supporting," she said.

Jessica Black, 17, also a junior, agreed. "The girls were really passionate about what they believed in," she said. "Most people our age are really wishing they could have voted for this election and really care about the outcome of our country."

Area college students who could vote in the election are as energized about the Obama presidency as those high school girls.

Chelsea Easter, 20, a junior studying English literature and journalism at Adrian College, is one of about 30 attending the inauguration and participating in volunteer activities in Washington. She's a member of the college's Democrat group and saw Mr. Obama speak twice on the campaign trail.

Ms. Easter said she couldn't pass up the opportunity to see him take the oath of office, especially when that event is close to Martin Luther King, Jr., Day and Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. "Being there, being in that environment, and to interact with people from all over the country and other countries to share the hope for the country, I want to be part of that," she said. "You can't get that sitting in the couch at home."

Kimberley Davis, an adjunct professor of political science at Adrian College and executive director of the Underground Railroad Education Program, organized the trip for students who participated in several election events on campus.

The visit is not just about the inauguration but also about volunteering and service. They'll participate in Generation Vote activities and a day of service for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, she said.

The diverse group out of Adrian includes Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and a number of racial and ethnic backgrounds. The election opened up their discussion about race and politics as it did around the country, Ms. Davis said.

"What I have been so glad to see happening is it's brought up wider discussion and a wider comfort level," she said. Kevin Totty II, a junior studying international business and Spanish at Adrian, said he wanted to be part of "this groundbreaking day in history" because it means something to him as a mixed-race person - Mexican-African-American - to have a mixed-race president.

Mr. Totty, 20, said he is particularly excited about the youth vote that helped elect Mr. Obama and is proud a black president isn't a huge surprise for his generation. "We have been brought up in a new culture," he said.

A new world where young black boys will have a role model in a black president will be celebrated on inauguration day at Lincoln Academy for Boys in central Toledo.

It's a continuation of their studies that included mock elections in the fall at the elementary school for boys, most of whom are African-American.

It will be a patriotic day with the school decorated in and the boys wearing red, white, and blue. The boys will profile 10 prominent black people in the country's history.

"You will always tell the kid you can be anybody you want to be, but knowing you can be the president, that's huge," Principal Teresa Quinn said. "It's an ah-ha moment, 'I can really be the president of the United States. I see this man and I see myself as an African-American boy and I can do it too.'"

At Lourdes College in Sylvania, a student plans to do his part to document the historic election. Kamar Mosley, a sophomore studying English, is working on a documentary about the election that he'll finish editing over the weekend. He plans to show his short film, which will be about a half-hour, during the college's inauguration celebrations on Tuesday.

"It's basically a film about the current state of America, and I'm picking up people's reactions and thoughts about how they feel about President-elect Obama and the direction our country is in," said Mr. Mosley, 21, who is vice president of the college's Black Student Union.

He's spoken to a teacher, student, pastor, military veteran, journalist, and others.

"I was inspired to do it because this is a huge part of history our generation is seeing and I wanted to capture it on film," Mr. Mosley said.

"The beauty in it is I'm asking them the same questions and I'm getting all different responses."

He wants to know how the election affected people and if they think the American dream still exists. It's a working title.

"This is history," he said. "We need to capture it."

Contact Meghan Gilbert at:

mgilbert@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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