The Foreign (Student) Perspective on America's Historic Day

WASHINGTON -- Charlotte Junius, a German student interning in Washington, saw something she did not quite expect Tuesday during the inauguration of President Obama. Near her vantage point, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, she was surrounded not only by hundreds of thousands of American citizens but also a healthy dose of foreign visitors, all packed onto the National Mall to witness history.

January 21, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Charlotte Junius, a German student interning in Washington, saw something she did not quite expect Tuesday during the inauguration of President Obama. Near her vantage point, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, she was surrounded not only by hundreds of thousands of American citizens but also a healthy dose of foreign visitors, all packed onto the National Mall to witness history.

“I was impressed by the large number of international people coming together here,” said Junius, who attended Eastern Kentucky University for her bachelor’s and will pursue her master’s degree at the University of Kent, in England. “I was standing in a big group of people from my home country of Germany, the Netherlands and France. It is good to see so much interest in American politics from those outside of its borders.”

Junius, intern at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, lives about a mile and a half from the White House in the International Student House -- an independent residential community with about a hundred students from more than 40 countries who are either studying or working in the city. She said she was very excited to be a part of the day’s festivities, noting that Obama is just as much of a hero to her friends in Germany as to the American students she has met.

“We have a saying in Germany that basically says, someone who washes plates can move up to become a millionaire,” Junius said. “This means, basically, that with your own strength you can build up your own existence. I think that’s a big part of Obama’s appeal around the world. Growing up and becoming president, he did that on his own.”

Amid the crowd on the National Mall, she said she thought she could understand what all the excitement was about.

“Having lived overseas all my life, I think it’s important for Americans to know that they can be proud of showing their passport again in Europe -- and not be ashamed of it because everyone hated [President] Bush,” Junius said.

Other international students from the house, who braved the crowds Tuesday, took less notice of the revelry and were more impressed by the solemnity of the occasion itself. Abraham Akoi, a Sudanese-born student pursuing a master’s degree in government from Johns Hopkins University, was struck by the peacefulness and joy of the ceremony -- two qualities he said are sorely lacking today in his war-torn country.

“The peaceful transfer of power in America is amazing to witness,” said Akoi, who before moving to Washington earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of the South (more popularly known as Sewanee). “A lot of people around the world are paying attention to what is going on in America. How the American people go through the process to choose a leader is remarkable. It was so peaceful. You can say what you want to convince others. It was so interesting to watch that, in the midst of all this intense debate, the American people can come together. The excitement of that should never be taken for granted or underestimated.”

After the election of Obama in November, he said the regional government in the southern part of Sudan declared a holiday during which those who felt they were being marginalized -- including some of his family and friends -- could celebrate.

“His victory was significant to a lot of people,” Akoi said of those in his country. “In Africa, American elections are a good lesson, especially in those countries that are ruled by dictators who do not want to give up the power that they cling to. The democracy that the American people have been talking about for centuries has now been met with the election of Obama. Americans talk about equality, freedom and liberty. Now, they have really shown it.”

The symbolism of Obama’s inauguration to many Americans -- who see it as having shattered a glass ceiling for African Americans -- was not lost on many of the international students who were in Washington to witness the day’s events. Camino Hurtado, a Spaniard who works at the Spanish Mission of Foreign Affairs and hopes to attend graduate school in the fall for a master’s in international cooperation, said she was impressed by the hope and faith expressed by those she met in attendance.

“I think, in my case, what I’ll remember most from today and from this election is that I’m in a country that 40 or 50 years ago would not allow an African American to sit on a bus. Now, you guys have chosen an African American to become president and he has taken office. I think that is remarkable. Only in America -- this is the one time when you can really apply that. I respect that, and I am very impressed.”

The patriotism expressed by many during the days and weeks leading up to the inauguration was also interesting fodder for Hurtado and her fellow international students. In Hurtado’s case, her perceptions of Americans held true at Sunday’s inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when she encountered many revelers.

“It was everything you’d expect Americans to be doing,” said Hurtado, who promised her friends and family in Spain she would document the week and upload pictures onto the Internet. “Everyone was wearing badges, t-shirts, cap and sweat shirts that said ‘Obama ‘08’ and were saying things like ‘Change is coming’ or ‘Let’s hope things will be different’ or even ‘The eight year nightmare is over.’ Also, during the songs at the concert, everything was like ‘America, America.’ I love that. I wish we had more of that in our country.”

Still, for all of the excitement in the air during the ceremony, some of the house’s international students expressed a bit of concern at some of Obama’s words. Jacob Maillet, a student from the University of Paris III who is researching his doctoral dissertation on the Cold War in Washington, said he was not sure whether Obama’s foreign policy would differ from Bush’s -- to which, he noted, the French have not responded well.

“What struck me about Obama’s speech was that it wasn’t that positive,” said Maillet, who also noted that the French would never wave little French flags with the fervor he saw many Americans waving flags Tuesday. “He spoke a lot about the war. Even though he has said he wants to pull out of Iraq, he seems to want to continue the war on what he spoke of as ‘a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.' You find echoes of Bush’s rhetoric in his speech. I was surprised because I expected him to be much more of a pacifist. We’ll have to see if he is really going to change policy, because there are great expectations of that in France.”

Prickly comments at the expense of President Bush were echoed by many of the house’s international students. Leo Bouma, a student from the Netherlands who recently finished a certificate program at Georgetown University and hopes to set up his own international relations consulting firm, said expectations for Obama in his home country and in the United States are extremely high, adding that this might not be a problem.

“Maybe we’ve raised the bar too high,” said Bouma, who noted some have joked about the similarity of his last name to the new president’s. “But, even if he does a poor job, he’ll still be better than Bush. He cannot fail, I guess.”

All of the international students who spoke of their inaugural experiences said they have met American students who are both more and less engaged in American politics than they are. Because they are in Washington, they tend to interact with many who care deeply about governmental issues, but each has had brushes with apathetic students, too.

“When I was at Eastern Kentucky, I knew a lot of people who didn’t care about politics or didn’t pay any attention at all to the election,” Junius said. “I actually did some volunteer work for the primaries in South Carolina for the Democratic Party. I always had the feeling that I was more involved, as a German, working for the campaign than some American students I met who could vote.”

As Inauguration Day came to a close at Washington’s International House, a number of students who rose early to catch a sight of history took naps on couches in the dorm’s television lounges -- where CNN’s rebroadcast of the ceremony was still playing. Later in the evening, there was to be a house dinner and a large party. Before too late, however, most students said they had to check in with their families to share the news.

“My mother has called me five times today,” Hurtado said. “She was like ‘Where are you? What are you doing? Are you taking pictures? Take pictures now and send them to me!’ ”

For all the concerns about the potential for dropped cellular phone calls at the ceremony, it seems a number of international calls got through just fine. Now, these students hope the Internet holds up long enough to update their Facebook pages.

“My family is very excited about me being here,” Junius said. “They called me about four times already before the inaugural even started, asking me where I was going to be. My dad called when I was in front of the [Washington] Monument and he said, ‘I think I can see you!’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think you can. There are so many people.’ Also, my friends are all very excited and asked me to put up pictures on Facebook as soon as I could. They all know it’s a historical event. It’s great to be here."


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