As millions of people the world over watched on television, Barack Obama took the oath of office to become the 44th and first African-American president of the United States.
Literally countless others attended the event in person in Washington, D.C. The volume of people was such that a photograph taken from space indicated the masses of humanity.
Vandalia Community High School senior Brittany “Nikki” Stine, was among those huge crowds on the mall braving the very cold day of January 20, 2009, an experience she will always treasure.
Meet Nikki as she tells how she got there, her experiences, and her thoughts and impressions.
Nikki began her “world travels” at the age of 11, when she was invited to go to Australia for a month as part of the “People to People” Program. Subsequently, she traveled to Europe twice, through the same program.
“People to People” is a student ambassador program for students in grades 5-12. It was started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and continued by his granddaughter, Mary Eisenhower.
“Students who are interested can be recommended by a teacher or can sign up on the Web site,” Nikki said. “Mary (Eisenhower) is in charge of everything. I’ve met her twice, once in Poland two summers ago and then last week. She did a presentation for us.
“I got a letter a couple of months ago, asking if I wanted to go for a five-day trip, and I was so excited, because I’d never been to Washington, D.C.,” Nikki said.
“I talked to my mom about it, and she was real excited about it, because she had always wanted to go there, too. So I jumped at the chance.
“I flew from a Indianapolis to Dulles in Washington, D.C., and from there, we went on a tour bus for the whole five days we were there.”
“When we got there, I was really intimidated, because they had already started closing the bridges. Traffic was really bad, and there were people everywhere, but we got used to it,” she said. “I was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.
“They told us that on Inauguration Day, we would be standing outside for nine hours, what the temperature would be and to make sure to be warm. I wore long-sleeved Under Armor, a long-sleeved shirt, a T-shirt, a jacket, a heavy down winter coat, a scarf, earmuffs, two pair of socks, tights and pants … and I was still freezing. It was so cold.”
“We had to stand nine hours,” she said. “We could have sat on the ground, but the area was all dirt, and we wore kind of nice clothes so we would be presentable. ‘People to People’ want us to look presentable.”
“The big thing about ‘People to People’ is that they are very good about their safety precautions,” she said. “While we were there, we couldn’t do anything without taking someone with us, no matter what it was. Even if it was just 10 feet away, we couldn’t go by ourselves.
“There were 5,000 port-a-potties, and there was at least a twenty minute wait at all of them.
“There was a refreshment stand there , but I didn’t actually go up to it, because the waiting line was endless.They had food like at a fair – burgers, pork – but we didn’t want to wait in line, so, basically, we just went without (food),” she said.
“Our tour guide told us that morning not to bring anything, no bags, because they would search them, and if the (bags) were too big, they would take them,” she said. “He us to put our cell phone and camera, which were the only things we would need, in a plastic bag, so security could plainly see them, and to prepare to open up our jackets. He prepared us for about an hour, telling us what to expect.
“We got there, expecting to be searched, and there was no security. We asked him why we weren’t being searched. We found out the only spots that had security were the ones right up against the capitol,” Nikki said.
“I didn’t really want to be searched, because it’s a hassle, but at the same time, I wanted everyone else to be searched. It made me kind of uneasy that they didn’t enforce the security more, but nothing happened,” she said.
“We could make out the people at the capitol, but they had big, big screens set up all the way down the mall, so we watched most of it on the screen. I was surprised at the mall, because I was expecting there to be lots and lots of shops,” she said. “All it is a huge dirt area between the capitol and the Washington Monument.”
“I was really glad I went. There were a lot of things that shocked me, like when President Bush came out, people were really, really rude. They started booing him and singing songs, such as one group singing, ‘Hit the Road, Jack!’
“They (Girl Scouts) had given free American flags out to wave, and everyone put them down. I can kind of understand (because some are unhappy with him), but he was still the leader of our country for eight years, and people should respect him more than that,” she said.
“I would love to go again to Washington, D.C., but definitely not to an inauguration,” she said. “I would want to go on my own when I had enough time. It was so packed, you couldn’t do anything. Every memorial had tons of people at it, so I’d like to go at a less busy time.”
“I wish it had been warmer, but other than that, there’s not much that could have been done to make it better. I don’t even want to know how cold Michelle Obama must have been.”
It was bedlam afterward. “That morning, at about 5 a.m., when we got to the mall, it was still dark out,” Nikki said.
“Our tour guide said, ‘Everyone, get your cameras out right now.’ As we were walking, we stopped at an intersection and he said, ‘Take a picture of this sign right now. You’re going to get lost. There is no way to keep track of each other with people pushing and shoving. So take a picture of this intersection and went to meet there after the inauguration.’ We all took a picture.
“Afterward, we went to meet at the intersection. We didn’t know at the time that they had blocked off all other exits, and the millions of people were all trying to go to the same intersection. People couldn’t walk, everyone was trying to get through. We were there for two hours afterward gathering everybody up.”
But everyone was accounted for and arrived back home safely. The “People to People” group all wore lanyards bearing their names and where they were from. They were not allowed to leave their hotel room without their lanyard, and were not allowed to talk to anyone not wearing one.
“In the beginning, all the people were hospitable, offering you snacks and things,” Nikki said.
“As the day wore on, people became a little more irritable. But it was a great experience,” she said.
She brought home some memorabilia, but especially treasures her American Flag, which, she said, “is irreplaceable,” as are her memories of a historical event in America’s history.
She recommends that the parents any child invited to go on a “People to People” trip consider letting them go. “It’s really great, and there are so many safety measures – the security is almost impenetrable. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially for kids.”