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Students visit White House

Five Gallaudet students visited the White House on May 12 for the first evening of poetry, music, and spoken word to be held at the home of the U.S. president and family. Rising senior Alexander Abenchuchan said that he and fellow students Jiayi Zhou, Audrey Pope, Kathleen Roberts, and Alexandria Pucciarelli felt fortunate to attend even before the event began.

“As soon as we got into the White House, I felt a sense of royalty,” said Abenchuchan. As the students were escorted through the iconic residence, they noticed many historical touches, including paintings of previous occupants of the house, “from Roosevelt to Hilary Clinton,” recalled Abenchuchan.

The Gallaudet students were ushered into the lobby outside of the East Room to mingle with other guests before being seated in the main room before a stage. Other students had been invited from American University, Georgetown University, and Howard University. Gallaudet’s invitation came to President Davila from the White House Social Office through Kareem Dale, special assistant to the president for disability policy.

The program began with an introduction by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The first lady said this event was part of her and her husband’s commitment to making the White House “a place where all voices can be heard.” She not only welcomed the performers to speak out, but invited everyone to “enjoy, have fun, be loose.”

The evening’s events

The evening’s performances included a monologue from Shakespeare’s Othello read by actor James Earl Jones, thoughts on writing by authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, and a spoken piece accented with ASL by young poet Joshua Brandon Bennett. Bennett’s piece was inspired by his older sister, who is deaf. The musical part of the program featured jazz musicians Esperanza Spalding and Eric Lewis (who also goes by ELEW).

Guests in attendance included film director Spike Lee, TV broadcaster George Stephanopoulos, and actor Zach Braff.

Their experiences

Zhou, a graduating senior, was thrilled with the opportunity to attend. She was especially struck by Bennett’s performance, though she said she is not a poet herself. She can claim a place in the writing community, however, as a blogger who relates her experiences at Gallaudet to the deaf community in her home country of China.

The celebration of language in the spoken word pieces and songs, which was evident in the interpreters’ signing, made a big impression on Zhou. She also appreciated the inclusive program. “I could see diversity and equity,” Zhou said of the line-up. “It is very clear that Obama tries to work with different people to give us hope and follow through on his promises.”

Abenchuchan, who hails from Florida and is a writer and poet, was drawn by the musical performances. Lewis’ string-plucking and key-pounding were especially inspirational. “I’ve never seen anybody play the piano with such intensity as ELEW,” Abenchuchan said. “He took himself seriously. He did it with passion. It made me realize I should do the same with my writing.”

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