Maiden Voyages

Published by Joyce Jones on Monday, July 16, 2012 at 9:09 am.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

When you spend your workdays surrounded by hundreds of the nation’s most powerful men and women, it’s easy to grow a little jaded. You lose appreciation for the richly patterned tile floors as you breeze past the bronze and marble statues, sculptures and frescoed murals in the U.S. Capital–until a visitor reminds you that such beauty shouldn’t be taken for granted.

That same ennui happens when you’ve been to the White House more times than you can count. The first few times are a thrill but you quickly get over it.

But today as I embarked on my maiden voyage on the presidential campaign trail, I felt that thrill again, especially as I watched the reactions of the people who had stood in line for hours to hear President Obama speak, that ranged from glee to absolute rapture. One woman was so overcome with emotion that she required medical assistance.

Minnae Chabwera, 20, is a Hampton University student majoring physics. She will participate in her first presidential election this November and cannot wait.

“I wanted to see him and support my president because I’m going to vote for him [for the first time] in November, and I’m going to volunteer,” she said at a campaign rally in Hampton, Virginia.

Minnae, who dreams of being an astronaut and has interned at NASA, was just 17 when Obama was first elected, but she volunteered for his campaign. She and some friends skipped school and braved Washington’s scary-cold weather on Inauguration Day to witness him taking the oath of office. Minnae has since voted in congressional races, which she also believes is important.

“People don’t go out and vote every two years like they’re supposed to and then get upset when things don’t go their way,” she said.

Casting that first presidential ballot, however, will be very special. Minnae says it means she’s “finally grown up enough to make a difference in the world.”

When asked if she’s noticed a lower level of enthusiasm for Obama among college students, she said that’s definitely not the case on her campus, where the president delivered a commencement speech a couple of years ago. Upperclassmen are fired up and ready to make sure the incoming freshman class members register to vote, Minnae explained, and the school holds registration drives every year. Students also are checking out Virginia’s new voter ID law and will vote absentee in their home states if it turns out to be an obstacle.

The most moving encounter, however, was with a woman in Norfolk, Virginia, whom  I wrote about earlier, who was recently diagnosed with myeloma. Sandra Brooks Green is the kind of brave woman with a heartbreaking tale that the president sometimes talks about during his stump speeches. I saw her as Obama made his way through the crowd in Norfolk, and wished she could have gotten a hug.

But just being in the same him was enough.

“I feel more empowered than I did before. It’s clear we need him for another four years to make a change,” said Green, who was seeing the president in person for the first time. “I feel humbled and honored to be here.”

Many of the people I will meet along the campaign trail between now and November, like Green, will be poignant reminders to never take anything for granted.

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