BILLINGS – Overwhelmed and almost giddy, Billings Central High freshman Mikayla Nelson was ecstatic as she left the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday night after the State of the Union address.
“It was the most amazing and touching experience of my life,” she said.
Nelson was invited by the White House last week to sit with first lady Michelle Obama and her other guests at the State of the Union address. She said the invitation and then the actual experience of being there Tuesday night were surreal.
During the broadcast, Nelson was featured on screen five times through the course of the address, although President Barack Obama never mentioned her by name.
At one point, when Obama was speaking on the importance of science education, the camera cut directly to Nelson and lingered there for a few seconds while her name appeared on screen.
“It just doesn’t get any better than this,” said Patrick Kenney, Nelson’s former science teacher from Will James Middle School and one of her mentors.
Kenney said he understands why the president didn’t mention Nelson by name — there were a lot of special guests in the room. Speaking in general terms about pursuing science, engineering and math skills was the best way to handle it.
“I think they did the right thing,” he said. “I thought it was very appropriate and just well done.”
It was long day for Nelson. She was up at 4 a.m. Tuesday to catch her flight out of Billings.
On the plane, she was recognized by some of the first-class passengers, which led Delta Airline officials to bump her up from coach to first class.
Before the speech, Nelson, 15, met with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the president’s science adviser, John Holdren. She and the other guests met Michelle Obama at the White House, where they all received a tour.
From there, she rode in the White House motorcade to and from the Capitol and at the speech sat directly behind Daniel Hernandez, who is Rep. Gabriel Giffords’ aide and is credited with saving her life.
Nelson’s goal during the speech was to make sure she didn’t do anything embarrassing.
“You know, making sure I was sitting up straight and everything,” she said.
Wednesday, Nelson will sit down with Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus. From there, she’ll head over to the Department of Energy and then receive a behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.
She flies home Wednesday night.
Nelson first caught the attention of the White House when she and her team from Will James Middle School competed last April at the National Science Bowl.
The super-light mini electric race car she and her teammates created won the top design award at the Science Bowl and got their team interviewed during the competition by the Discovery Channel.
The attention led to an invitation by the U.S. Department of Energy for Nelson to participate in the White House Science Fair in October, where she met President Obama and briefly chatted with him about the car and showed him how it worked.
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