Former D.C. Scholar Clayton Armstrong will study State of the Union up close

Two young men and seven women are the first class of D.C. Scholars from the District's public classrooms who, based on their academic records and on personal interviews, are installed in various offices in the White House and in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Robin Givhan focuses on one of the students, Clayton Armstrong.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Clayton Armstrong, a freshman at the University of Arizona, received the mind-boggling phone call as he was walking out of his English 102 class. It was the White House on the line -- the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, to be precise. And Michael Block, a staff assistant, was inviting Armstrong to sit in the first lady's box on Wednesday evening at President Obama's first State of the Union address.

"I was like, 'Are you serious?' "

Yes, the White House was.

Armstrong, 18, grew up in the District and was one of nine students who participated in the White House's D.C. Scholars internship program last summer. He had been a minority among minorities in that first class of high school students recruited from the nation's capital. He was one of only two young men, and he had just graduated from one of the most disadvantaged schools in the country, Frank W. Ballou Senior High School.

But Armstrong had been a rarity; he avoided becoming a statistic or a stereotype. Back in August, he described himself as "big on self-motivation." He persevered, taking advantage of most every opportunity and winning admittance to the University of Arizona.

For eight weeks, Armstrong took the Metro from his home in Anacostia, dressed for business -- most often in a serious gray suit -- to his tiny wooden desk in the Old Executive Office Building, where he sorted press clips, greeted visitors and took advantage of a White House that made a point of opening its doors to the young people in the community.

After his first semester in Arizona -- a state he had never visited before arriving for college orientation -- Armstrong has decided to major in political science. He boasted A's in three classes -- English, Latin and African American literature -- and a B in a course on Latin American politics. Armstrong keeps in touch with many of the people who mentored him over the summer and credits the D.C. Scholars program with helping to prepare him for a university that is expansive, diverse and, at times, intimidating.

"They've helped me with small things like study skills," he said by phone from campus. "The teachers were moving really fast, and I was falling behind." But instead of isolating himself or being embarrassed, Armstrong sought help.

His White House pals served as a personal support group. They told him he'd have to "devote more time than in high school to studying." And they told him to relax. Don't panic. So he's focused on his studies, "digging my feet in," he said, and keeping the extracurriculars to a minimum. At least for now.

Another D.C. Scholar also was invited to the speech: Janell Holloway, who graduated from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School and is attending Harvard University.

As of Monday evening, Armstrong's invitation to sit with Michelle Obama in the U.S. Capitol was still a secret. He hadn't even been able to tell his parents, mom Karen and dad Milton. "It's been painful holding it in," he said. "But I hope I'll be able to tell them soon. I need them to pick me up from the airport."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company