WASHINGTON — Allison Rodriguez ’09 could barely move. Worse still, her position near the Smithsonian Institution amid Tuesday’s two-million-strong inauguration crowd prevented her from watching President Barack Obama’s swearing-in on giant screens scattered across the National Mall. It was 7:30 a.m., and Rodriguez had more than four hours to go before Obama would appear on the steps of the Capitol almost a mile from where she stood.
“I’m cold. I’m hungry. I don’t even know where I am,” she said. “But I’d do this 10,000 times.”
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Rodriguez shared the moment with several hundred Yale students, all of whom skipped classes Tuesday to fly, take a train or bus, or drive the 300 miles to Washington for the inauguration of America’s 44th president. Those who were here said they will remember the cold and the crowds, but that their defining memory will forever be watching Obama’s inaugural address and oath of office.
The students came on buses chartered by Saybrook College, the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Asian American Cultural Center and La Casa Cultural. Students did not have to be members of the organizations on whose bus they rode.
All left late Monday night or early Tuesday morning, with those on the Monday night AACC buses chattering excitedly for an hour before settling down for a few hours of sleep. Others woke in the wee hours to board buses and start the six-hour journey southward. Aboard the Af-Am House bus, students spoke of the magnitude of the moment they were about to witness. “We are going to live history,” several passengers repeated.
Such was the sentiment on the La Casa bus, too. “This is going to be in the textbooks,” Rodriguez said.
The vehicles arrived at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in eastern Washington in the early hours of dawn Tuesday. In the parking lot, students crowded a fleet of shuttles that drove them four miles to the Capitol. Despite the early morning cold, spirits were high.
Along the streets, vendors hawked food and Obama paraphernalia. With the shuttles bearing AACC bus passengers approaching central Washington, the sun began to rise behind the Capitol.
Some lucky students had inaugural tickets for coveted seats near the Capitol’s western steps, from which Obama would take the oath. Most others joined nearly two million others who lacked tickets to watch the festivities from the National Mall.
Initial excitement dimmed as students settled in for the long, cold wait ahead. A troupe of students aboard the AACC bus arrived on the mall at 6:30 a.m. They would wait six hours in 25-degree cold for Obama’s address. “I’m so miserable,” Laurika Harris-Kaye ’11 said, “but it will be so worth it.”
Kevin Qiu ’11 said the cold was not a problem; his problem was trying not to fall asleep on the Mall after the early-morning ride. Hopefully, he said, the speech would be worth the wait.
With the crowds settled, students watched giant screens airing footage from Sunday’s “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial that featured performances from U2, Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen, sometimes singing along as the crowd spontaneously picked up tunes such as “Stand by Me.” Any time Obama appeared on the screens, he was met with loud cheers from the crowd. President George W. Bush ’68 was met with boos, although a few Elis, like Carmen Chambers ’12, refrained from joining in.
“The booing made me upset because it was disrespecting the tradition,” Chambers said. “The day was about passing power.”
But when Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office to the nation’s 44th president shortly after noon, it was a different story. The 2-million-strong crowd burst into raucous cheers. JuLondre Brown ’10 found himself consumed by emotion.
“At the swearing-in, tears started streaming down my face, and I swelled with pride for my country like never before,” Brown said. “It could be one of the greatest moments that I’ve ever experienced.”
Quiet reigned in the crowd throughout Obama’s speech, broken only by applause after lines such as, “Know that America is a friend to each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.” The students stood captivated. Throughout the roughly 18-minute address, Kevin Olusola ’10 said the adrenaline never stopped rushing through his body. (“And it was very much needed,” he added, “because it was so cold outside.”)
The euphoria of Obama’s swearing-in soon faded as students turned to face the logistical difficulty of exiting a 300-acre greenway crammed with nearly two million people. Traffic stopped in the streets and lines of people moved slowly around police barricades.
“It was exactly like the cattle-killing industry at some points,” Rodriguez quipped.
Then it was back to the buses and back to New Haven.
“It was one of the most exhilarating parts of history to be a part of,” Jordan Schneider ’12 said. “It’s something I’ll tell my grandkids. It was a beautiful day, a beautiful moment.”
Reporting was contributed by Gabriel Barcia, Taylor Lasley, Jessica Letchford, Lauren Motzkin, Rachel Wang and Han Xu in Washington.