Poli sci, history students drawn
to inauguration of nation’s new leader © Feb. 6, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

photo courtesy of Peter HerrickPeter Herrick, a third-year political science major, was just one Norwich student who spent three days in Washington, D.C., soaking in the atmosphere of the 44th U.S. presidential inauguration.

Peter Herrick Jr., a junior at Norwich University, was one of an estimated two million people on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2009, for the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States. Herrick admits Barack Obama was not his first choice, but wants him to succeed.

He was completely unprepared, however, for the impact of hearing Obama speak.

“I had seen him give speeches on TV, but nothing compared to hearing him in person. He was electrifying. The emotions I experienced were indescribable. Once he started speaking there was no choice but to be involved,” said Herrick.

Herrick and a handful of other students from Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military college, attended the University Presidential Inaugural Conference (UPIC), comprised of 5,000 students from across the country. Students at UPIC had been part of the National Youth Leadership Forum on National Security in high school. The conference included seminars and speeches from two noted leaders—former Vice President Al Gore and former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell—and, like Norwich, it was designed to provide a rich experience for students with academic and leadership potential.

You could hear emotions when he spoke. I had a sense of living through history.

~ Nicholas Yuknalis,
Norwich freshman on hearing President Barack Obama speak

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and Herrick, a political science major from Hampden, Maine, is very clear about what he finds inspiring in good leaders.

“A leader leads by example, holding the morals of the people above all else. They put everything on the line, giving up personal desires for what they believe is best for the people,” he said. “As a leader, you acknowledge challenges and meet them head on.”

Nicholas Yuknalis, a first-year student, also attended UPIC and was there on the mall. He echoed the sentiment that hearing Obama speak in person was very different. “He has a way with words. You could hear emotions when he spoke. I had a sense of living through history.”

Yuknalis walked two miles to the National Mall, arriving at 4:30 a.m. He wasn’t alone in the predawn trek, and was impressed by the mass of people around him.

“By 5 a.m. when I looked behind me, there were people as far as I could see,” said Yuknalis.

Herrick arrived at 8 a.m. and moved as far forward as he could.

“The crowd was very politically charged,” he said. “I was overwhelmed to be part of a crowd that size. Yet in the midst of that many people I got a sense, looking around at people’s faces, that everyone was just there for the moment and I was safe.”

There was more to the conference than the main event. Yuknalis, a Studies in War and Peace [SWAP] major from Kearny, N.J., holds Powell in great esteem and had looked forward to the speech.

“He is respectful and honest and has integrity because he doesn’t bash people,” said Yuknalis, who was impressed by Powell’s message, which he summed up as, “I don’t care what’s happened to you, I just want to know what you can do.”

For Dr. Steven Sodergren, assistant professor of history and director of the SWAP program, the opportunity for students to attend the inauguration and experience our nation’s leaders in person is incredible, particularly to a SWAP major who studies military history and diplomacy, and their impact on the social order.

“SWAP’s interdisciplinary aspects combine elements from programs across the University,” Sodergren said.

Often students come to Norwich’s Northfield, Vt., campus specifically for the program because none other like it exists for undergraduates.

“The program’s greatest strengths are in keeping with the ideal of the citizen soldier Norwich emphasizes,” said Sodergren. “We teach students about how to be citizens of the republic and how to be respectful of its history and role in global affairs.”

Herrick is enrolled in Origins of American Political Parties, taught by Sodergren.

“The course is about the evolution of party debate in the U.S., particularly how the notion of legitimate opposition formed,” said Sodergren.

Recently, the class participated in a mock debate between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, re-creating the fiery presidential election of 1800. Sodergren noted a marked difference between the 1800 and 2008 elections. In 1800, opposing political parties viewed each other as traitors. While Barack Obama and John McCain, “exchanged harsh rhetoric, neither one challenged the other’s ability to speak their mind or their patriotism.

“To partake in a hallmark of tradition and witness the history of an inauguration is fully in keeping with what we teach,” he said. “We teach students how the American system operates and the importance of tradition.”

Yuknalis said he feels different after attending the inauguration. “I now am motivated to put my priorities in order. I have more of a sense that I am responsible for making changes in my life.”