Iowa City teens will attend inauguration

FasTrac emphasizes college preparation, community involvement

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IOWA CITY – Kamil Hodges shook President Barack Obama’s hand this fall. Now the 17-year-old from Iowa City plans to be in Washington, D.C., next month to watch his second inauguration in person.

Hodges is one of about 20 teenage members of the Iowa City program known as FasTrac who are going to the president’s public swearing-in Jan. 21.

FasTrac emphasizes school work, community involvement and college preparation. It is open to anyone but is primarily made up of black junior high and high school students.

Hodges, who saw the president, Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama at an Iowa City campaign stop in September, said being at the second inauguration of the nation’s first black president meets FasTrac’s mission.

“Just seeing an African-American president, it shows us that it’s possible. You can be anything in life,” said Hodges, who is a senior at West High School and president of FasTrac.

FasTrac’s director, Henri Harper, agrees. The five-year-old program he founded at City High and then, after his position was cut in 2010, moved to the nonprofit Mayor’s Youth Empowerment Program, puts a priority on real-life experience.

Each spring, FasTrac students go on a “Civil Rights Tour” to the South to visit historic sites and historically black colleges and universities. It serves the dual purpose of enhancing the students’ knowledge of history and spurring interest in college.

FasTrac members have a strong record of attending college. Most of the dozen high school seniors in FasTrac this year have already been accepted to college, Harper said. Last year’s seniors, about five of them, all went to college, he said. About 250 kids have participated in FasTrac the past five years.

Some of the members struggled in school or socially before joining, but others were high achievers who simply liked what the program had to offer.

Harper said the goal is to get them to want to learn and be involved. The idea for the Washington trip came from the students.

“We said if we raise the money, we can do anything,” he said.

The Washington trip will cost a few thousand dollars. Fundraising hasn’t gone as well as they’d hoped, but Harper and the students said they’re going no matter what.

Vida Seals, a 34-year-old FasTrac volunteer, also is going and will bring her 11-year-old daughter. She said the FasTrac group plans to wear oversized Iowa shirts outside their coats. Another volunteer did that at Obama’s first inauguration and received a lot of positive responses from people who acknowledged the central role Iowans played in getting Obama elected.

A similar reaction next month would show the students the importance their state played in getting a black person in the White House, Seals said.

Obama’s term will start Jan. 20, but because that is a Sunday, his public swearing-in will be the following day, which happens to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I hope they realize how everyone who came before them, and even President Obama being in office, is paving the way for them to have better lives,” Seals said.

That sentiment already is resonating with FasTrac member Fatimah Omar, 17, a senior at City High School.

“By seeing our African-American president being inaugurated for the second time, for me it feels like that could be me, or anyone could be president,” she said.

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