While our 2008 presidential candidates jetted across the country reaching as many voters as possible, students from Northern Essex Community College met the most influential government officials right in the hub of their existence — Washington, D.C.

The Contemporary Affairs Club, a group of 18 NECC students with a wide array of political viewpoints, attended the Conservative Political Action Conference with five professors.

And while the club visits the Capitol almost every year, this year's upcoming presidential election created an unusually exciting trip.

The students were present to hear former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney announce the suspension of his campaign. They also heard speeches by Republican candidate John McCain and Libertarian candidate Ron Paul. But the highlight was hearing from President George W. Bush.

Students left their hotel rooms at the crack of dawn to get in line for the 7 a.m. event, but one curious student who went exploring the Omni Hotel got a smile and salute from Bush.

"I wanted to see what the back looked like," Lathon Jones-Downing said. "I had seen three Escalades and thought, 'I wonder where they're going.' I ran into two people and they said, 'I'm sorry, you're not supposed to be back there.' Just then, I saw George Bush getting out of one of the Escalades and I said 'oh my gosh, there he is!' So I just yelled 'hello sir!' and waved. He smiled at me and saluted!"

Club members got a taste of every side of the election. Inside the convention there was memorabilia for sale at every turn, including some light-hearted jabs at Hillary Clinton. Outside the convention, supporters for every candidate were stationed throughout the city rallying passersby.

"We were in the center of where everything happens," said club member Jillian Spofford of Haverhill.

The aim of the club is to expand horizons for students and get dialogue going on world issues with a wide range of perspectives. The club advisor is professor Stephen Russell of the history, government, philosophy and economics department.

"I just didn't care enough," said Spofford about her attitude before joining the group. "Now I'm more open to it. I know how important it is to be a part of things. Every vote counts."

The conference was to mobilize the youth movement in the Republican Party

"It's a tough thing to get 18- to 24-year-olds to even vote," said club member Winston Fernandez of Bradford, who considers himself a moderate. "I think (the conference) was trying to avoid political apathy. I like to know the issues. I wanted to know both sides. I went primarily for that reason."

The trip also helped the club come together.

"It solidified us," said Junior Leal of Haverhill. "We have a special bond."

Students had time to visit museums and landmarks in the nation's capitol, including the Holocaust Museum, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial, Washington Monument, Supreme Court Building and White House.

Students observed people from all over the world taking in the history and beauty of Washington, D.C., and it affected them.

"I recommend that everyone take this trip," said Leal. "There are a lot of important lessons to be learned. I feel lucky to have seen and touched the monuments."

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