Bethel, Alaska, to Anchorage. Anchorage to Seattle. Seattle to New York. New York to Virginia. Virginia to Woodley Park.
That was the itinerary for the 15-hour odyssey that brought Tierney McCormick, 17, to the nation’s capital this week to attend a presidential inauguration and take part in the Envision Impact Series Presidential Inauguration Leadership Summit, a five-day immersive educational experience in governing, debating, politicking and, perhaps, helping solve the world’s biggest problems.
McCormick, a high school junior whose class has just 60 members, joined 2,500 middle school, high school and college students who descended on Washington for the summit Wednesday. Exhausted but “extremely excited,” she said she had closely followed the election and was looking forward to watching Donald Trump be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States at noon on Friday.
But the excitement came with some caveats.
“I don’t like the comments he made about women, and I don’t respect someone who talks like that,” McCormick said during a dinner for the group Wednesday in a ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park, where the bulk of the program’s participants are staying. “But we just have to wait and see what he is going to do and give him a chance.”
Zack Crilley’s journey to the summit was considerably shorter. He drove down Connecticut Avenue from his home in Chevy Chase, Md., just a few miles away. Trump’s inauguration will be the first for Crilley, who says he comes from a family of staunch Republicans but describes himself as an independent.
“This is such a hostile time in the political world, and students really need to take part in the process and get involved in the system because we are the people it is going to affect the most,” said Crilley, 16, a junior at Gonzaga College High School in the District.
While eager to attend the inauguration, Crilley said he was mostly looking forward to meeting students from across the country, especially those who have different backgrounds than his.
“I think I kind of live in a bubble in Chevy Chase, and attending private school,” he said. “I want to see what the other kids are thinking and feeling about everything going on in the country.”
For Maram El Geneidy, 17, a Muslim student from Bettendorf, Iowa, the chance to be at the inauguration, “to hear it live, not on TV,” was an opportunity she didn’t want to miss. And she says she believes the new president will put the rancor of the campaign behind him.
“There was a lot of division and there still is a lot of division, but if he really cares about the country, he’ll want to bring it back together,” El Geneidy said.
The student summit has taken place for every inauguration since Ronald Reagan’s second, in 1985. Run by Envision, a Virginia-based education company that offers career exploration and leadership development programs, the summit is a download in all things Washington.
This year, participants from all 50 states will hear from pundits (Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson) and politicians (Martin O’Malley and Carly Fiorina), as well as Gen. Colin Powell, director Spike Lee and soccer great Abby Wambach. But for many attending the summit, one of the most eagerly anticipated speeches is a teleconference address from 19-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
While big-name speeches are part of the draw, the summit participants — who each paid $3,400 to attend, some with financial aid — also will engage with the nitty-gritty of policymaking and problem solving. In small groups they’ll tackle big issues: the environment, health care, women in leadership, technology, peace processes and education.
They’ll argue and cajole, gab and groan and hopefully alight on solutions to the problems that have long vexed their elders. At the heart of the process is developing a nonpartisan cooperative spirit, Envision’s leaders say.
“We’re in an especially polarized and divisive time,” said Duncan Young, chief executive of Envision. “My aspiration is that this will be part of the antidote to polarization. This has to start with the young people and hopefully we’ll see them model how to work together.”
That’s the spirit in which Charles Graham, an 18-year-old college freshman from Ann Arbor, Mich., has approached the summit. Graham, who voted for Hillary Clinton in the election, says he is hopeful that Trump will succeed as president.
“You have to look at the good or you’ll never have hope,” he said. “And a vast amount of people voted for him. Those people believed in him and the hope would be that he will make their lives better. Do I know that will happen? No. But I’m hopeful.”
Graham has another reason he wants to attend the inauguration: He hopes to be in Trump’s place one day.
“I know I want to be president of the United States when I grow up, and I want to do everything to make sure that’s likely to happen,” he said.