Before he was a world-renowned climate scientist, Richard Alley was a U.S. Presidential Scholar.
It was 1976, or, as Alley recalls, back in the “Dark Ages.”
As a high school senior in Worthington, Ohio, just north of Columbus, he got to take his first airplane ride to Washington, D.C., for the annual U.S. Department of Education event that honors some of the country’s outstanding graduating high school seniors.
He missed out on an opportunity to meet President Gerald Ford, who had been called away for some sort of political crisis, but the overall experience, he said, was “just fantastic.”
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Since 1964, students have been chosen based on academic success, artistic excellence, essays and community service, among other criteria. And among this year’s 141 scholars was Alicia Lai, a 2014 State College Area High School graduate.
It wasn’t her first time on an airplane, but Lai flew to Washington to take part in the program’s national recognition weekend June 22-25. The experience, she said, “was amazing — beyond what I have the capacity to put into words.”
She said it was inspiring to meet “brilliant and talented individuals from all over the country.” They bonded almost immediately, she said, respectful of each other’s accomplishments.
She also met the first lady.
Michelle Obama was “a wonderful presence” who encouraged the scholars to be a voice of their generation and reminded them that they would be the makers of new innovations in the world.
Alley, a Penn State professor of geosciences, was there, too. But he and Lai didn’t cross paths. He was there to speak to other Presidential Scholar alumni — about the environment.
Each year, alumni — the brilliant and talented individuals from years past — are invited back. Among them are scientists, journalists, actors, artists, politicians, lawyers — followers of diverse paths. Alley said it was interesting to meet the other alumni and to see the diverse routes they’ve all taken.
And he remembered that, back in 1976, the scholars were told that they represented a lot of people of their generation, that they were “more representative than unique.” Although they were being honored, they were representing their classmates, too.
Lai, a daughter of Zhichun Lai and Ying Li, was part of a team that put on a show at the Kennedy Center, working closely with established and student artists.
The show’s director, Bill Jones, told the scholars that “art is not supposed to be comfortable or cool or beautiful.” It should be “sublime, that is, awe verging on terror,” he told them.
“And I think this is so true of everything in life — from art to innovations to politics,” Lai said. “When we go out into the world, hoping to make an impact, it’s important to have our own, new voice.”
Lai, whose parents and sister attended the Kennedy Center performance and the medallion ceremony, said her family has been “wonderfully supportive ... encouraging me to work my hardest and giving me the freedom to follow my own dreams.”
Maybe she’ll follow Alley’s path one day and return to Washington to reunite with her generation of Presidential Scholars.