Santa Clara University

Santa Clara Magazine

Bearing Witness

Among the 2 million people who gathered in Washington, D.C., in January for the inauguration of President Barack Obama were SCU students, alumni, and faculty. What was it about this moment that meant so much personally? That’s what we asked these folks. Read the stories and see and see pictures below.


Margaret Russell

Associate Professor – School of Law

The crowd provided the most unforgettable part of the experience for me. I had been a bit nervous before heading to D.C. when I heard about the huge crowds expected, but the reality was that I moved in a sea of people who were ecstatic, friendly, and hopeful. I have been to many large public events—concerts, rallies, etc.—but the experience of being in the crowd was truly extraordinary and moving. The diversity of age, race, ethnicity, and background was amazing. I met older folks who told me of growing up in the Jim Crow south with ‘white’ and ‘colored’ drinking fountains. I met a couple who were personal friends of George W. Bush, who were there both to attend farewell parties for Bush and to witness the historic inauguration of President Obama.”


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Caitlin Bliss ’08

Teacher in New Orleans

I teach predominantly African American children in a low-income school just outside New Orleans. The morning that Barack Obama won the presidential election, I arrived excitedly to school to find my fourth-grade tutoring group—equally elated—huddled outside my classroom.

“Ms. Bliss! Ms. Bliss! Did you hear? We got a new president!”

I threw out the math lesson for that morning and instead instructed the kids to brainstorm about what changes they wanted President Obama to make.

“Now I feel like I could be President one day…” one of my students mused.

That tutoring session was undoubtedly the most productive we’ve had all year. I went to the inauguration to be a part of a historic moment yes, but more important, I went because I wanted to thank the man who gave my students a renewed sense of hope.

For the inauguration itself, I was lucky enough to be staying just a few blocks away from the Capitol. On inauguration day, my friends and I woke up at 6:30 and dove into the throngs of bundled up revelers headed to stake out spots on the National Mall. We passed winding lines of people holding their coveted tickets. I felt a little jealous, until I saw the security delays and confusing color-coded directions.

Our walk to join the crowds on the Mall was relatively painless. People were so ecstatic to be there in the moment that it was impossible to be annoyed with the chaos; the positive energy in the streets suddenly made the 17-degree weather bearable. Pushes and shoves to move faster transformed frowns to smiles as people chanted “Yes we did! Yes we did!” A respectful hush enveloped the crowd during Obama’s swearing in. We craned our necks to witness history via jumbotron. It was as if people just couldn’t contain their joy—even before our new president could finish, cheers, screams, laughter and tears erupted all around. I hugged an older lady behind me while high-fiving a teenager to my left. Somewhere amid the celebrations, I snapped a picture message of the Capitol to send to my class in New Orleans. They were watching on TV, undoubtedly arguing over which speck on the Mall was their teacher.

The realization that one man could unite even the most diverse of freezing, sleep-deprived strangers was overwhelming. Obama’s words re-energized my pride toward being American, as if it suddenly felt right to be part of this country again. I left the Mall that morning feeling both exhilarated and exhausted. It was a morning I will never forget.


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Aldo Billingslea

Associate Professor, Department of Theatre and Dance

When my wife Reneé and I called our travel agent to see about traveling to Washington, D.C., for inauguration, we found the quoted $450 per night hotel rate a prospect as chilling as January weather in the capital. My prudent bride reminded me that for two educators, this endeavor was an undeniably expensive dream. True, but it would give our 10-year-old daughter tremendous perspective. The power of presence, I argued—of her seeing this event first-hand—would surely be worth the additional payments on the credit card.

The image of our biracial daughter perched on my shoulders to see the first biracial, first black, first president of African decent, was a strong enough image to persuade my economically conservative better half. We were making an appointment with history.

We booked the flight with frequent flyer miles, booked the hotel with a credit card that would give us more frequent flyer miles, and attempted to buy inauguration tickets. We settled for a wait-list...but they never called.

On inauguration day, we bundled up and attached toe-warmers to socks, packed sandwiches, water, and pumpkin bread, and headed out. The crowds were lively, but not overwhelming. Vendors hawked handwarmers, bookmarks, Obama earrings, and certificates declaring “I was there!”

As we approached the National Mall, we saw a fairly large crowd around a Jumbotron just east of the Washington Monument. Were we so late that we’d have to be this far back.

But Trinity would not allow it. “Can we please get closer?” she said.

I complied, as any wrapped-around-the-finger-dad would.

We snapped photos, including one of an older gentleman wearing flags as a crown. He said, “I’ve never been more proud to wear the flag.”

We worked past two more jumbo screens, passing the Smithsonian Institution and the news buses for CNN, ABC, and Univision, until we could move no further forward or center.

Cheers went up as the live feed on the screens showed Mohammed Ali, Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore. With each sighting of a popular figure, countless hands waved flags frantically—like first graders who think they might know an answer.

Obama appeared, flanked by Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein. The crowd erupted in even louder cheers.

The moment was so close I began to tingle. I hoisted Trinity into my arms and stood by Renée.

The crowd’s first eruption was only topped by the mania that ensued after Obama stated: “So help me God!”

Once we had seen him sworn in, I put Trinity down on the ground and the crowd went to church with him as he delivered his speech. Every truth about the difficulties we faced, the work we all need to do, and the challenges we could overcome received applause and exclamations of “All right now!” and “Amen!”


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Nazgol Ashouri

MBA student

As soon as Nazgol Ashouri boarded the plane in Oakland to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration, she could feel the excitement. Passengers on the Baltimore-bound flight were already “Obamified,” wearing Obama pins, hats, and flashing lights, eager to find out from one another why they were going—and how they got tickets.

Ashouri was one of four students chosen to represent Hillel, the foundation for Jewish campus life, at the inaugural festivities in Washington, D.C. She had recently participated in a Hillel alternative break service program in Israel and submitted an essay about her experience. Hillel was invited to participate in the Inaugural ceremonies and the National Day of Service by the Obama Transition Team.

Ashouri was born in Iran and lived in Washington D.C. for three years. But being back for the inauguration, she found the city to be completely different from when she lived here.

“The energy in the city was just incredible,” she said.

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