When I found out that President Barack Obama was going to be visiting Michigan State University to sign the 2014 Farm Bill, I knew that I couldn’t miss the chance to see him speak. When I found out that it was media-only, I was disheartened. When I remembered that I was a journalist, albeit a student, I contacted MSU. College officials informed me that media access was being handled by the White House, and I was disheartened again. How was I supposed to get through to the White House?
MSU officials were able to forward me the form to RSVP, and I filled it out without much hope of a call back. It all seemed too high profile for a student journalist, especially one reporting for a community college hours away from Michigan State University.
I waited and waited, refreshing my inbox for the email I would receive if I was confirmed. A few hours later I was dancing around the house with my grandma when I read – “You have been confirmed to cover President Obama’s remarks at Michigan State University on February 7, 2014.”
When the day finally arrived, I fueled up my car and headed east to Lansing.
About an hour later, Siri announced, “You have arrived at your destination.”
I was in the parking lot of a Burger King surrounded by run-down factories, and something told me that this was not where President Obama would be speaking.
Thankfully, I had left about twice as early as I had to, allowing myself to get lost a few times.
After a few more turn arounds, I finally made it to MSU, which unfortunately for me is also an incredibly easy place to get lost. I wouldn’t have found the equestrian center in time if it wasn’t for the kind (and annoyed) cops that I pestered for directions on every road. I eventually made it, and after showing the officers my media pass, I was cleared to enter the area to find a parking spot.
What should’ve been a five-minute walk from the parking garage to the equestrian center became a 15-minute walk in the below freezing wind because I went the wrong way, and by the time I finally made it to the building my eyes and nose were running so badly that I’m pretty sure the police officer at the first checkpoint thought I was crying. She seemed uneasy as she checked my media pass and motioned me through to the next checkpoint, eager to get the crying girl far away from her.
I finally made it to the media entrance, and the door shut on me just as I walked up. I stood around for a few minutes until a grizzly older man walked up and asked me “is this the line for legislators?” I didn’t know and I didn’t recognize him, but he reminded me of Jack Nicholson. He smirked and pounded on the door until security opened it, letting us both in. Considering he was a legislator, I wasn’t surprised that this worked.
Inside, I felt more at ease. I found myself in line with a room full of journalists and students that looked just as lost, confused, and excited as I did. Another student broke the silence by mentioning the fact that we were standing next to a giant horse treadmill. He was right, and we introduced ourselves, probably both eager to claim a buddy to go through this adventure with.
I finally made it to the front of the line to get my White House credentials before wading through security. I was patted down as I watched them check all of my camera lenses and gear. Once the dog was finished sniffing my bag and deeming me fit to pass, I was motioned out of the building and into the large barn that Obama would be speaking in.
What I thought was going to be a small media-only press conference, with journalists shouting out questions to the president and fumbling over each other to get a picture or quote, was actually nothing of the sort. There was room to seat about 300 guests: College Democrats, agriculture students, Michigan State faculty, and other notable faces like MSU Men’s Basketball Coach Tom Izzo and Senator Carl Levin. The press was barred from getting anywhere near the stage, which was decorated with crates of fake fruit, an American flag, and a large green tractor. Michigan State University’s jazz band was playing, and it all felt very showy.
My new friend and I mingled in the crowds for hours until finally, an announcement was made that the program was starting. I hurried over to the “cameras only” section as two students started off the event by singing “The Star Spangled Banner”.
A couple more faces appeared on stage, and my nerves were starting to kick in. I was about to be in the same room as the president, and it was hard to comprehend that I had even gotten where I was in the first place.
By the time Senator Debbie Stabenow took the stage to talk about the farm bill and introduce Obama, even the photographers around me were getting antsy. I fumbled with my camera to make sure I had the right settings, growing more anxious. I wouldn’t get any good shots if my hands were shaking, so I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm down.
When Stabenow left the stage, assistants to the president came out and placed the presidential seal on the podium, meaning that Obama would be out shortly. I’m not sure how long we all waited for him to appear from behind the bales of hay, but it felt like an hour.
“Come out already,” a photographer near me said. He had two high-end cameras around his neck, and lenses that cost thousands of dollars.
When Obama walked out, my hands steadied and I immediately went into photographer mode. I felt bad, because I’m not sure if I fully appreciated or connected with the idea that I had the president standing in front of me. I was too busy working on getting the shots to be overwhelmed by the situation. All of the photographers around me haphazardly fired off their shutters shot after shot, holding the camera over their heads with, I’m assuming, no clear idea of what image they were capturing. I didn’t have the same thousand dollar lenses to compensate for being hasty, so I took my time.
While the journalists I was crammed next to were busy taking selfies of themselves with Obama in the background, I took a minute to put my camera down to listen to Obama’s speech.
He casually leaned against the podium, making jokes about his college days and how much his hygiene has improved since the days he lived in his “pigsty” dorm. He spoke in a way that made you feel like you knew him, like he was an old friend or colleague that you were catching up with. He had the crowd engaged and at ease, and it finally sunk in that I was in the same room as the president. I appreciated it for a good second, then got right back to shooting as he walked over to his desk to sign the bill.
The bill’s co signers gathered around him, and he asked, “Can everybody see me okay?”
From where I was, none of the photographers could see him. All of the journalists around me started yelling, “We can’t see! Move, move!” and I surprised myself when I realized I was waving the man on stage to move over so that I could get my shot. I guess all is fair when you’re a journalist, but it still seemed a bit uncivilized to be yelling toward the president. The man moved though, and I got my shot.
Before I knew it, Obama said “God Bless,” and made his way off stage, and the crowds of people began shuffling out.
It all happened so quickly and I was so preoccupied with getting good shots that it seemed like a blur. I was in the same room as the president, but it felt completely routine.
I’ve been asked a few times if it was worth the new outfit I bought, the long drive, the scrambling for credentials, and the seemingly endless waiting around.
Although it wasn’t as intimate and small of an event as I expected, it was entirely worth it and I couldn’t be happier with how the experience played out. I didn’t embarrass myself, so all was well.
I think I could get used to this.