As one of three 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholars from Hawaiʻi, it is safe to assume that my plane ticket from Honolulu to Dulles was one of the more expensive tickets reimbursed by the program. From the day the list of Presidential Scholars was released to the moment I boarded my nine-hour flight, thoughts of the National Recognition Program (NRP), held each year in the nation’s capital, felt surreal—scenes of historic national landmarks and famed politicians from both CNN and “Cory in the House” filled my mind.
From attending the Medallion Ceremony to meeting the sitting President in the White House and my state’s elected officials on Capitol Hill, NRP was full of the unique opportunities that it had promised. On Sunday afternoon, Scholars checked in at Georgetown University and were introduced to their small-group “clusters” of students from similar regions. The first highlight of NRP was the Medallion Ceremony in the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, where Scholars and their guests were addressed by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Mick Zais.
Gen. Zais reminded this year’s class of Scholars, “For each of you, there are 23,000 students who are graduating from high school [in America]. Those are pretty slim odds, of being 1 of 23,000, and I hope you recognize the specialness of that achievement.”
Other program highlights included the Scholars’ visit to the White House, as well as the Salute to the 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholars performance by the Arts Scholars. The performance, which was held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was undeniably the pinnacle of NRP’s celebrations. The raw talent and creativity possessed by the nation’s top young musicians, singers, actors, writers and visual artists, who organized the full performance within a week, was breathtaking.
At a quick glance, NRP is clearly characterized by its prestige, and while my experiences undoubtedly confirmed these perceptions, they also proved that the two-day program, while short in length, could form a network of valuable friendships, reinstill the importance of civic duty and provide countless moments of learning and laughter alongside incredibly inspiring peers. While at surface level, the official events described above are what define NRP, it was in fact the little moments of connecting with others—on the bus, during mealtimes and long after the evening activities adjourned—that I will cherish forever.
Even a week after returning home, I fondly recalled the conversations I shared with my Advisor and fellow Scholars from Hawaiʻi, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Germany as we wandered around Georgetown past midnight trying to find Insomnia Cookies. I often think back to the talks shared with students from Washington to Vermont as we anxiously waited to receive our medals and lined up to enter the White House; I already miss the ease of being able to spark new connections by merely asking, “Where are you from?”
I miss Monday night’s goodbye activities and the many laughs shared as my cluster planned and performed a humorous “foreign Americans” skit. Finally, I continue to feel inspired by the insights offered by numerous Scholars during the Scholar as Citizen forum. From a student’s enthusiastic call encouraging everyone to register to vote to a panelist’s reminder of our responsibility as Presidential Scholars to ensure that the thousands of other incoming college freshmen across the nation receive the same privileges and opportunities that we have received, the forum reminded me that my peers serve as some of my greatest resources.
The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program, in its 54th year, has formed a diverse network of thousands of the country’s brightest minds in law, politics, education, science, technology and the arts. Upon receiving the honor of joining this network and meeting my fellow Scholars, many of whom were already founders of organizations, nationally renowned academics and acclaimed performers, I began to wonder whether or not my accomplishments were enough to justify my being there.
Yet, one of the greatest gifts that NRP provided me with was the ability to recognize the importance of my peers’ achievements in furthering my own ambitions. I soon began to view the myriad of talent and intellect surrounding me as a means of motivation rather than a source of self-doubt. Ultimately, I knew that I had nothing to prove beyond my ability to be kind and open-minded towards so many incredible individuals that I hope I will someday meet again.
I’m honored to have been a part of the 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholars cohort and am deeply grateful to the program staff and Advisors for making this year’s NRP possible. As all 161 of us Scholars prepare to embark on the next step in our respective journeys, may we continue to create and explore with the same curiosity, drive and passion that first brought us together.
Isabelle Rhee is a 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholar from Hawai’i who loves to explore her cultural identity and issues of social justice through her writing. Rhee will attend Yale University in the fall.