Two borough teens named Presidential Scholars

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Christopher Pak of Oakland Gardens and Margaret Claire Hannigan of Flushing recounted last week their experiences in Washington, D.C., where they attended conferences on politics and journalism with other high school students from around the world.

The two returned to Queens from the weeklong Presidential Classroom Scholars Program with a little more experience and their minds made up: Pak committed himself to becoming a politician, while Hannigan has decided to enter journalism.

Pak, a 17-year-old junior at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and Hannigan, a 16-year-old junior at St. Agnes High School in College Point, spoke about their trip last Thursday afternoon in the office of Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing).

“It was one of the best times I ever had,” Pak said.

The Presidential Classroom Scholars Program, run by the federal government, seeks to expose future world leaders to the inner workings of politics and journalism. Students in the prestigious program, which is divided into separate politics and journalism concentrations, take classes, attend lectures and socialize with their peers from the United States and abroad as they tour the capital.

Students must apply to the program and must have strong academic credentials. The government covers most of the cost, although the students must raise about $1,000 each to attend. Liu’s office contributed about $200 to both Pak and Hannigan.

“It’s a real accomplishment to be accepted into this program and to go through it, but it’s just the beginning for them,” Liu said.

As part of the program, the students spoke with some of the country’s leaders. Pak met U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and sat at the desk of U.S. Rep Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside). In an open forum, Hannigan asked former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader how society can help control the power of corporations.

Nader responded by saying consumers needed to keep an open mind about what they buy and not limits their products to those made by major corporations, Hannigan said.

Pak said his trip, which took place in January, inspired him.

“I am making it my goal in the future to run for office and make a difference in the Asian community,” Pak said.

Hannigan, who was in Washington in March, also said the program helped convince her of what to do with her future.

“When I first went, I debated what I wanted to do,” she said. “But after I came back, I knew [journalism] was it.”

Both participated in debates with their fellow students. Pak and his fellow attendees discussed the war in Iraq, which at the time of the conference had not yet begun, while Hannigan and the other journalists argued whether or not the phrase “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Pak said he was surprised by the high level of activity of Washington politicians.

“I never imagined it would be such a busy place. I thought it was all protocol,” he said. “Even when we had speakers talk to us, there would constantly be cell phones buzzing.”

Hannigan said she learned about the hardship journalists face in their lives and the importance of writing original stories.

“You have to have different things to talk about, you have to have a new story,” she said. “And you have to have a good reputation.”

Pak said he noticed the connections between journalists and politicians.

“They are dependent on each other, the media and politicians,” he said.

Liu predicted that relationship would be part of the students’ future.

“We’re talking about 20 years from now. Chris could be a senator in Washington, Margaret could be an editor at the Washington Post, and they would be fighting,” he joked.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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