Excited students take Big Red to the inauguration

January 22, 2009

Tiny pinpricks of Big Red stood out amid the sea of furiously waving American flags on the National Mall, Jan. 20. Among the 1 million-plus people attending the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president were 100 Cornell students, faculty and staff who took an all-night bus together to brave the cold and witness the historic ceremony.

"It's my freshman year so this is really exciting," said Nenha Young, AAP '12, at 4 a.m., as the bus arrived in Landover, Md., after an eight-hour journey. "It's history in the making, and we're going to be part of it."

Students from seven Cornell colleges -- chosen by lottery -- were on the trip with representatives from Campus Life, Employee Assembly, Faculty Senate, Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, Student Assembly and other organizations. The excursion was the brainchild of Curtis Ferguson, assistant director of Multicultural Programs in the School of Hotel Administration, and Leon Lawrence, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusiveness in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

The Cornellians struggled to make it through the masses to get onto the Metro and then to the viewing areas. Some, like Ola Williams, A&S '10, couldn't make it past the gates into the non-ticketed standing area, amid the tremendous influx of visitors.

"We got there at 5 a.m., and we thought everything was going to be fine," said Williams. "We were some of the first people to get to the 300 block of Seventh Street. They told us a couple of times that they would be able to let us in by 7 a.m. They underestimated how quickly the mall was going to get filled. They tried to let us in one by one. It was just absolutely too cold -- people were passing out; an ambulance had to come twice. It turns out that most of the people in that line at Seventh Street couldn't get in. They went to the ESPN Zone and other places to watch the inauguration instead."

Surprisingly, no one performed bag searches. People freely perched in trees and on top of dumpsters to get a better view. Bottlenecks of people formed at entryways and exits, alternating between potentially problematic pushing and an utterly frozen standstill of individuals pressed cheek by jowl.

Alice Grgas, ILR '12, who was trapped in front of the Seventh Street gates, recalled thinking, "I hope everything will go smoothly; I don't want anything dangerous to happen." Eventually, a police officer via megaphone urged the crowd to inch toward the 14th Street entrance.

Those who did manage to persevere past the gates faced the frigid air for several more hours before the festivities began at 10:30 a.m. In cramped conditions, huddled together with some jogging to ward off the cold, the crowd chanted "O-BA-MA!"

"It is just so thrilling to be here," said Laura Lewis, director of Student Services in the ILR School, at about 11 a.m. "It feels like a positive beginning, a new opportunity for the country to heal from some very difficult years. … It's cold but sunny, there are more people than I've ever seen in one place, and it's great."

At the end of the eventful day, it was back to facing reality. As Young noted: "I know a lot of seniors are pretty scared now because of the change in the [stock] market. Hopefully within the next four years we will bounce back because of Obama."

By Jennifer Wholey '10, writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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