I became a freshman at Northwestern University, right outside Chicago, when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008. He was the first candidate I ever voted for. I had filled out my absentee ballot for president on a Saturday in my dorm room, right before heading out to a football game. Now I was going to Chicago with my roommate and our friends to watch his victory speech.
It’s hard to remember now that we know how easy it is for the electorate to be manipulated by fake news, but throughout the month leading up to the election, there was never any doubt Obama would walk away with it. McCain’s campaign had crashed and burned, and the endorsements he received from newspapers and political figures who’d never gone for Democrats before made a big difference. Afternoon classes and rehearsals were all canceled since our teachers knew we wanted to go into the city anyway.
That freshman fall quarter, my first on campus, was very hard for me. I had felt homesick a lot, and trying to break into the socially stratified Northwestern theater scene was harder than any of my classes. That night, though, I knew I would be celebrating with my friends.
Of course, none of us were actually going into Grant Park. Tickets were near-impossible to come by. The plan that night was for us to meet up with friends outside of the park and watch the speech. I had even brought two large bags of snacks for the occasion.
And then something happened that changed my life forever. A man on the street was selling tickets to go into the park. I went up to him on sheer impulse and asked, “How much?”
“$50.00,” he said.
“I have $50.00!” I cried out.
He took my money and thrust a ticket in my hand with the “O” logo.
The transaction must have taken less than fifteen seconds, but once it ended, I realized that $50.00 was going to separate me from my friends for the rest of the night. For a brief moment, I felt guilty because I was leaving them. Fortunately, they yelled at me, “Are you crazy? You’re going in! Go!”
So I wouldn’t be watching on the sides. I snuck past the long, long line to get in and lost the snack bags at security. I wouldn’t see my friends for the rest of the night. But I was going to be there, in Grant Park itself, watching Barack Obama become the 44th President of the United States.
Crammed in a corner near the emergency runway, I couldn’t see the podium Obama would speak from, nor could I get decent cell phone reception. But around 9:59 central standard time, CNN called Virginia for him, and everyone started counting down for the Pacific states to come in. A few moments later, when my home state of California put him over the top electorally, the entire place exploded into cheers.
I didn’t know the people standing next to me, but we hugged and clapped so loudly we might as well have been friends for life. People were crying and calling their friends and family. This went on for a solid hour before Obama came out and gave his speech.
“If there is anyone out there,” he said, “who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer…this is your victory.”
This sense of jubilation lasted even as we left the park to go home, with brass bands on the street playing “Happy Days Are Here Again” and people on the train hugging each other. I didn’t make it to my dorm until 3:00 AM.
When I walked into class the next morning, with only a few hours of sleep, I went up to my teacher and said “Hey, know that assignment where I had to see a person speak in public? Well, I did it last night” – and I pulled out the ticket. Needless to say, she and my classmates were very impressed.
Even though I hadn’t celebrated that night with my friends, I got to celebrate with the entire world. I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was - in my fears, my hopes, my dreams - and I learned that many people out there had these same feelings. We looked to our elected leaders, rightly or wrongly, to validate them, and throughout his terms in office, Obama did just that.
I would remember this lesson when, eight years later, I went to New York's Javits Center in the belief that I would watch our first female president get elected, a bookend to witnessing history in Chicago. I stayed up late that night too, only this time feeling like the monster under the bed was actually real. The next night, when I marched in the streets of Manhattan, I found myself reconnecting with friends I had not seen in years who again, felt the same way I did.
“I know you didn’t do this just to win an election. And I know you didn’t do it for me,” Obama said. We did it because we worked together and celebrated together, regardless of whether we knew each other or not, to change this country. We can do that again – we are doing it right now – and that change will matter for our future.
So for this lesson, and for so much more – thanks, Obama.