Presidential Scholars First In-Person Gathering in Five Years

By Sophia Hall

Last weekend, June 21-23, a cohort of Presidential Scholars gathered at the Capital Hilton, just steps away from the White House, for the 60th Anniversary of the organization and first in-person meeting for the first time in five years.

President Lyndon B. Johnson penned an executive order in 1964 that established the Presidential Scholars, which are selected annually by a special committee. Considered one of the most prestigious academic awards for high school graduates, 161 high school seniors are selected annually for their accomplishments in academics, the arts, and career and technical education fields as well as for their dedication to community engagement and leadership.

Notable Presidential Scholars include Wendell Pierce ‘81 (of Suits fame), Michelle Wu ‘03 (current Boston mayor), and Rita Dove ‘70 (U.S. Poet Laureate). D.C.’s own prominent Presidential Scholars include Attorney General Merrick Garland ‘70, Kermit Roosevelet III ‘89, and Don Beyer ‘68, who joined the Welcome Reception on the celebration’s first day to impart some wisdom.

“The Presidential Scholars Program is a very important part of my youth, and it provided essential direction for my later public service,” attested Beyer, who represents Virginia’s 8th District.

One of the most memorable aspects of receiving this distinction is a trip to the nation’s capital to meet the President and fellow Scholars. However, the pandemic caused the in-person recognition ceremony to be ceased “indefinitely,’ which means the past five classes of Presidential Scholars have received their medal in the mail, not at the White House.

The energy at the anniversary celebration, organized by PSF Executive Director Scott Soldat-Valenzuela and Board Chair Tom Tsao, made up for the missing five years. The rest of the conference featured panel discussions and networking opportunities for the Scholars to learn about how their peers were impacting the world, form partnerships, and forge new ways to build a brighter and better future. The luncheon keynote speaker, Abigail Hing Wen, recounted her story of overcoming imposter syndrome in both her law and novelist career, resulting in her becoming not only a top specialist in artificial intelligence but also an author of numerous bestselling romance novels that were also major motion picture adaptations. 

The Awards & Recognition Gala concluded the end of the celebration’s second day, where the achievements of Scholars such as Jamie Raskin were amplified. One eminent Scholar spotlighted was Dr. Jane Rigby ‘96, who had just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work as chief scientist for NASA’s James Webb Telescope. Symbol of American heroism and super-ability, Wonder Woman—aka Lynda Carter herself—was even in attendance. 

The Presidential Scholars Program provides hope and pride for a nation that has constantly relied on the energy and innovation of the youth to form communities and take on inspiring leadership roles. Even if the in-person recognition program is not reinstated, the power of these young scholars cannot be denied. 



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