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U. City students heading for inauguration in D.C.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 15, 2013 - Last year, University City high school senior Abby Mutrux got to attend a Mitt Romney fundraiser in Indiana. Next week, she’ll be part of a student group in Washington, D.C., for President Barack Obama’s second inaugural.

The second trip definitely is a better fit for her personal philosophy than the first.

But writing about the clash between the two was how she won a spot along with 25 other U. City students on the trip that will be paid for with $30,000 donated as part of a quick, successful fund-raising campaign. Principal Michael Maclin says that once Sen. Claire McCaskill’s office said it could provide inauguration tickets for his students, “fund-raising was not very difficult at all.

“I came back to my office and made six phone calls, and before I knew it, we had verbal commitments for the money.”

That money, he added, will help the school fulfill one of the big goals for the unusual field trip – helping them see real world events that relate to what they are learning in the classroom.

“We really want students to have experiences that they would not normally have while they are still in school,” he said.

Families of the students will have to pay just $100 each for the trip, which begins this Friday and will end Monday evening after the president makes his speech. Besides hearing Obama’s address, the students will visit Washington landmarks like the White House, the Capitol, the Martin Luther King memorial, the Library of Congress and Georgetown and Howard universities.

While they are there, a district official said, a CNN correspondent tagged along for a short time -- watch his report here.

Essays and issues

Once the trip was set, students who wanted to go had to write an essay of 750 to 1,500 words, setting out how the issues of last year’s presidential election affected their lives. The trip was open to 11th and 12th graders with good citizenship who have passed all of their classes.

More than 80 students entered, and “their essays were phenomenal,” said Linda Pritchard, the school’s community service coordinator who was one of the main organizers of the trip.

Abby’s essay examined the two opposite poles of the political spectrum that she has experienced, from the conservative positions taken by those she competes with in the equestrian world to her own far more liberal personal views.

As she has taken part in horse shows for several years, Abby says she is often the odd person out when it comes to the political views of her fellow “horse people,” as she says they are called. She recalled a trip last year to compete in South Africa, where she said she was the only Democrat in a group of Republicans.

“People kept asking me, ‘What do you think of Obama,’” she recalled during a recent interview along with a few of her fellow students who will be making the inauguration trip. “I tried to stay neutral. But people should get to see both sides, like I do.”

In the essay that won her a spot on the inauguration trip, she wrote of being able to attend a Romney fund-raiser last August at the Evansville, Ind., mansion of the family of one of her World Cup teammates.

“When I told my parents about the invitation,” she wrote, “they laughed in disbelief but told me I should definitely take advantage, even though they did not support Romney themselves. My grandmother on the other hand was very jealous of me, being president of the PEO, a women’s republican group. The most astonishing part was the formal invitation sent to me with suggested donations starting at $2,500 and up to $75,900 or above. Luckily, the team’s invitations were stamped with 'donation not required for your attendance.'"

During Romney’s speech, she said, “the whole room had their eyes glued to him and applauded every chance they got. I too politely clapped and tried to correct the scowl on my face whenever he urged the audience on by saying Obama won’t be in office anymore.”

The contrast was even more pronounced, Abby wrote, with her teammates. Asked by fellow competitors from other countries about Obama, she quotes one of her fellow Americans as saying:

“I don’t like Obama because I like money, and I like money because I like horses, and without money I can’t buy more horses.”

Her essay adds, “To say that you don’t like Obama because you want to buy more horses is a really selfish and ignorant way to express your beliefs.”

So how did the Romney fund-raiser affect her life? Abby concluded the essay this way:

“I am confident that I will never forget that evening, but I may have enjoyed it even more had I known President Obama was going to win the election.”

Fellow students had similar concerns. Jeffrey Standifer was not happy about the GOP nominee’s stand against PBS, saying how much he had learned from Big Bird.

Eliana Hudson has worked with Planned Parenthood and pushed for equal rights.

Daniel Politte wrote about the need for campaign finance reform, while Ethan Farber talked about lesbian and gay rights and equal pay for women.

Aun’Yiea Watson took an intensely personal point of view, comparing Michelle Obama to her mother, a single mother who had two toddlers by the time she graduated from high school. She had to take out loans to go to college but was still able to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“My mom and Michelle Obama may have many differences,” Aun’Yiea wrote, “but there is one common thread they share. They both came from working families and had to rise above the struggle of poverty. I never thought there was a chance that the first lady of the United States would understand how hard it is to struggle and live in poverty, but because of her willingness to be transparent I realized my family was not in this alone. She made it known it doesn’t matter where we start but where we end that is the most important.”

Mattie Moore, with McCaskill’s office, helped arrange the students’ itinerary while they are in D.C. She cautioned the students to make sure they dress warmly, in shoes they won’t mind standing in for long periods of time, since most of the inauguration crowd doesn't have seating.

You should take in everything you can while you’re there,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful opportunity”

So wonderful, the students said, that even if it were a Romney inaugural and not an Obama one, they would still want to go.

“No matter who is elected,” Daniel said, “it’s still a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

And it’s more than the students realize that fact. Nine school staff members are going to be accompanying them to Washington, but there was no shortage of adults who were willing to make the sacrifice and go along.

As Maclin put it: “We had many parents who asked to chaperone.”

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