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Student historians head to D.C. to witness ‘peaceful transfer of power’

Jan 14, 2017
In The News

When President-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office Friday, a small crowd of Washington students will bear witness.

Long before votes were cast in the November election between Trump and Hillary Clinton, local high school and college students were making plans to attend the ceremonies in Washington, DC.

“There’s a certain electricity and energy in the city during an inauguration,” said Peninsula High School history teacher Tim Messersmith.

He’s taking five kids from the Gig Harbor school and three from Tacoma’s Bellarmine Preparatory School to Washington on Sunday (Jan. 15) for a weeklong civic program in the nation’s capital.

“The kids are beyond excited,” Skyline High School history teacher Will Buker said of the 13 students from the Sammamish school he’s taking to Washington.

All have tickets to the historic event, in part because, compared with the past two inaugurations, demand for tickets has been lower.

The office of U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, got about 300 requests and gave away its allotment of 198 tickets to the Skyline High group and other residents of the Eighth Congressional District.

For President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, the office received about 800 requests, said Reichert spokeswoman Breanna Deutsch. Tickets were still available on Inauguration Day for Obama’s second term in 2013.

Across the aisle, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has received more than 500 requests for tickets so far.

“Compared to 2013, we’ve received half the amount of overall ticket requests, and it is just a third of the total amount of requests we received for Obama’s inauguration in 2009,” said Bryan Watt, Cantwell’s spokesman.

Watt said more than half of the people who requested tickets before the election have canceled.


“Part of being in a democracy … is sometimes you lose,” said Kaitlyn Sill, an associate professor of politics and government at Pacific Lutheran University.

Sill, 33, and another professor are teaching a class in democracy to 14 PLU students in Washington, D.C., during January.

“There was an expectation that Clinton was going to win,” Sill said of her students. “They were going to see the first woman inaugurated as president.”

The monthlong class, planned since 2015, was tied to the inauguration no matter who won.

“There were a lot of really concerned students (after the election),” Sill said. “We had some people drop out of the class.”

Some of the students who stayed wanted to know whether they would be forced to attend the inauguration.

Sill said she wasn’t going to force anyone to do anything, but eventually persuaded all of the students to attend.

“This is one of the most striking peaceful transitions of power,” she said. “You are there to uphold and observe the legitimacy of that transfer. It’s so fundamental.”

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, provided tickets to the PLU students and instructors. The tickets allow a closer viewing spot compared with the open areas on the national mall.

After Friday’s event, the class will meet for dinner to discuss the day. But not all will attend.

“Interestingly, a lot of the students are opting out of the dinner and taking part in the anti-inauguration,” Sill said.

That event at the Lincoln Theater in Northwest Washington will feature several speakers opposed to a Trump administration.

On Saturday, some students will attend the Women’s March on Washington, a Trump protest that organizers say could attract 200,000 people.


“We’re not there in support of anything or anybody,” said Messersmith, 47. “We’re there for the experience. We’re there for the historical significance of the peaceful transfer of power.”

The civics program for the Peninsula and Bellarmine students is administered through the Close Up Foundation and covers government, history, politics, lobbying and other topics that swirl through the marble halls of Washington.

“They use the city as a classroom,” Messersmith said. Students visit monuments and memorials, but with an educational spin.

The centerpiece of the trip will be the inauguration.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Habor, provided the group with tickets to an area near the Capitol reflecting pool.

“Last time (2013), I was back in the free section by the Air and Space Museum,” Messersmith said. “Everybody was really tiny. We were watching it on the jumbotrons.”

This will be Messersmith’s fifth trip to Washington leading students. The kids, many of whom have never visited the East Coast, are excited.

“They see this an opportunity to become more civically engaged and civically minded,” he said.

The Peninsula and Bellarmine students will hold a mock congress with the other 2,700 high school kids in the city as part of the same program.

Washington, DC, and particularly the White House, is never lacking for protesters. Guides use them as teaching moments.

“They don’t shy away from it, but they don’t put them right in the middle of it,” Messersmith said. “They give (the students) some free time to go talk to them, see what they have to say.”


Buker, 27, will be catching a red-eye flight with his 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders Wednesday. It will be his first trip to Washington, DC.

“I feel like I’m going to get to experience a lot of things with the kids,” the Olympia native said.

The trip has been organized through WorldStrides, a student education and travel group.

After a day of sightseeing Thursday, the students will attend the inauguration.

Like many, Trump’s victory caught the students off guard.

“The kids were more surprised than anything,” Buker said. “The kids were, I think, very much expecting to be attending Hillary Clinton’s inauguration.”

The outcome has not deterred their enthusiasm.

“I’ve been really impressed by, regardless of their politics, how maturely they’ve handled it,” Buker said. “They’ve really been able to disconnect from their own personal political opinions and just be able to experience it as an historian.”

They will return home Jan. 22.

“It is completely jam-packed,” Buker said of his itinerary.

Buker allowed his students to vote on what they wanted to see while in the capital. The results: The White House, Smithsonian history museums, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the World War II Memorial.

“It’s as much about the itinerary as it’s also giving the kids an opportunity to see the city and experience all the history there,” he said.

Like Messersmith, Buker won’t shelter his charges from protests as long as they are safe.

“As much as that peaceful transfer of power is very much an American ideology,” he said, “so is the right to speak against it.”