KINGSTON, R.I.—January 21, 2009 – Some reached for tissues as their eyes welled with tears, while a few rows over two women waved American flags. They were among 400 or so students, faculty and staff jammed into the Memorial Union Ballroom to listen, watch and cheer as Barack Obama recited the oath of office to became the nation’s 44th president just after noon on Tuesday, Jan 20.
Abu Bakr, ’73, director of planning services and executive assistant to the URI president, was among those in the crowd.
“First of all, the emotions are just so strong in me and they are absolutely welling inside,” said the URI graduate who was a star with Rhody men’s basketball squad in the early 1970s. “It’s such an incredible moment. What made it so unbelievable for me is he chronicled our history and legacy and challenged us as a nation and people to remember that we have responsibilities not just to our ourselves but to this country and to the world.
“This is a country that has had a history and legacy of racism and oppression, but which continues to grow and endure to the point where this country can accept and elect a black man as president,” Bakr said while wiping a tear from his cheek. “It says so much about how far this country has progressed. We have so much more to do. It’s almost hard to speak right now I am so overcome with emotion.”
At the ballroom one could get at least some sense of the excitement that filled Washington on Tuesday. The crowd rose in a robust ovation when the new president had completed the oath. For the URI community, which has been buffeted by unrelenting federal and state budget cuts, Obama’s pledge to bolster the nation’s public schools and ensure that a college education remains within everyone’s reach was a healing balm. At the conclusion of his remarks, the gathering rose and cheered again in tribute.
Cameron Lightbourne, a graduate student from the Bahamas studying aquaculture, also joined the ballroom crowd.
“Obviously it’s an important day, it’s a historic speech,” Lightbourne said. “His speech touched on all the important points, domestically, the economy, the threats that American and the world face. I think he just tried to be inclusive, that’s what his whole platform was built on, and his whole existence really is the embodiment of that. He just wanted to include, to let everybody know that he is going to be determined to make sure the people of every class, every creed are going to be part of the rebuilding of America. The world we live in right now is a global world, and it is getting smaller and smaller, and everybody’s going to have to work together.”
Donald H. DeHayes, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, moderated a panel discussion in the ballroom following the ceremonies. He reflected briefly on Martin Luther King Jr.’s comments at the Lincoln Memorial 45 years ago. He said members of the audience might remember when Dr. King talked to “America of the fierce urgency of now. Maybe that fierce urgency of now is emerging once again starting today. (Dr. King) talked about then being the time to make real the promises of democracy, and again maybe we’re at that jumping off point now some 45 years later. He also said now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
While DeHayes and others gathered at the ballroom, there were four other venues with large-screen televisions on the Kingston Campus and two others at the Feinstein Providence Campus where community members gathered to watch the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president.
At Rhody Market in Hope Commons, students clutched their cups of coffee and munched on presidential cookies while gathered around television sets. A sense of anticipation filled the air with some students showing up early to capture the best viewing positions. Even students who voted for John McCain wanted to be witnesses to history and were hopeful that Obama could inspire a weary nation.
Lauren Testoni, an East Greenwich sophomore, wore specially made earrings that bore the new president’s likeness.
“My mother got them for me for Christmas,” Testoni said. “We’re big Obama supporters in my house; my sister got a pair too. We’re a Democratic family; both of my parents are in unions, so we have always been big on Democrats. It’s a historic election; to have a black president is something we all supported and to have someone who is going to make a lot of changes we need right now is really great,” Testoni said.
Lauren Turrisi, a sophomore from Cresskill, N.J., did not vote for Obama, but she was excited to be witnessing history.
“It’s very cool watching change being made in our county, and I think it’s something we need. So I hope Obama does well for our country,” Turrisi said.
Wayne Cahoone, a freshman from Wakefield, said, “This is one of those days you will remember for the rest of your life. It’s such a monumental day in history.”
An Obama supporter “from day one,” Cahoone added that “at first it was something about his character that I was drawn to. I just started looking at his stance on the environment, to become more energy efficient with wind power and solar power and his stance on the war.
Yaw Peprah, a sophomore from Lincoln, said, “I am so happy for him (Obama). No one thought that this day would come, that we would have the first black president. I think he has all of the qualities to be a world leader.”
Matthew Colavita, a freshman from East Greenwich, voted for John McCain. So how was he feeling about the day’s events? “It’s tough, but I am not angry or bitter. I am very hopeful. I wish Barack Obama all the best. I hope that he is the right answer for this country. Obviously, that’s the most important thing that our country can recover. We are in tough times in many different areas.”
Deborah Levesque, a psychologist with Pro-Change Behavior Systems, Inc., an 11-year-old privately held research and product development company located on the Kingston Campus, was appropriately expecting change. “This day represents a new day because we have elected a black man as president. I believe that we will leave Iraq soon, and as a researcher, I believe that we will see new research funding. I also think he is a good role model for young people and adults. He has a strength of character we haven’t seen in the White House for a very long time.”
“It’s momentous and emotional for me because I grew up in the ‘60s,” said Susanne Vieira, project assistant at Pro-Change. “I saw, heard and experienced a lot. I like the unification of people, the sense again that we are all together and all one. I think Obama will be a good president for us, because he will unify the country, and if he can execute those things he wishes to execute, we will be a lot better off.”
Watch a video taken during the inauguration gatherings held on campus.