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Aloha, Washington

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Sierra Schmitz gives a TV interview at the State of the Union address.
Sierra Schmitz gives a TV interview at the State of the Union address. Photo provided by the office of Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.

Sierra Schmitz came a long way to attend American University. She could have gone to college in her native Hawaii, but the allure of Washington, D.C. brought her here. Living in the nation’s capital opens up plenty of doors, but Schmitz never imagined she’d be a guest at the State of the Union address. Yet, sure enough, last week she found herself watching the president of the United States from the gallery of the U.S. Capitol.

“It was incredible,” she says now. “Especially because it was President Obama’s last address, there was just a whole different feeling of excitement.”

A Gathering of People

Schmitz was invited to the SOTU by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. In 2015, Schmitz interned with her home state senator in both Hawaii and D.C. When she got a call from Hirono’s chief of scheduling, she assumed it was a work-related matter. “He said, ‘Are you going to be in D.C., and would you want to go to the State of the Union?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, yeah, I’ll cancel everything to go!’”

When Schmitz relayed the great news back home, her mother—whose surfboard is adorned with a Hirono campaign sticker— got quite emotional. “She was crying and saying, ‘I’m just so excited!’ Just because she knows that this is exactly why I want to be in D.C., and this is why I wanted to move here,” Schmitz recalls.

During the course of the evening, she walked, talked, and had dinner with the senator. They even discussed some shared history in Hawaii: Hirono once threw out a pitch at Schmitz’ brother’s baseball game.

After she took her seat, Schmitz noticed that she was younger than some fellow guests in the gallery. But, in some ways, the atmosphere was informal and welcoming. “It made it more of a personal thing. Not just like a direct speech to people, but a gathering of people to meet and talk and enjoy it together,” she says.

Hawaiian Connection

Schmitz was born in Honolulu, like Obama himself. That was not lost on her while watching the SOTU, and she says Obama’s roots are definitely a point of pride for many Hawaiians. “It was actually a cool connection—being with a senator from Hawaii, and being addressed by a president from the same state,” she says.

Schmitz grew up on Hawaii Island and Oahu. Though not an ethnic Hawaiian, she attended a Hawaiian-focused charter school and learned about the culture and history. She eventually transferred to La Pietra Hawaii School for Girls, and along the way she was active in sports, such as swimming, surfing, and outrigger canoe paddling.

A College Life in Pictures

Through traveling, Schmitz was curious about the world and wanted to live in a cosmopolitan, East Coast city. So she chose AU and its School of International Service.

At AU, she’s a sophomore majoring in international studies with a focus on global environmental sustainability and public health. Photography is both a hobby and a serious passion, and she’s involved with the student group AU Photo Collective. She’s also been an event photographer for her sorority, Phi Sigma Sigma.

“I love the campus, and it is the college experience I was looking for. I have a lot of friends who are very driven, who do really cool things,” she says.

Hirono brought Schmitz to the SOTU as a way to highlight college affordability issues. Schmitz works at a restaurant and is paying her way through school. She has a sizeable grant from AU, and she also relies on government loans and foundation-based scholarships.

“I pay for my own groceries, pay for my sorority dues, pay for my transportation to my internship and stuff. So that was really difficult, but now I definitely see it as a blessing, because I am responsible for my education,” she says. “I’m grateful for AU.”

Career Goals, City Lights

Schmitz initially thought of a career in conservation and sustainability, but now she’s considering environmental policy work. And she’s leaning towards staying in D.C.

Like so many people before her, Schmitz still gets swept up in the grandeur of this city. Whether she’s walking around the monuments on a weekend, or taking a morning jog by the White House, it always leaves an impression. “I think, ‘This is amazing. This is history. I’m here.’”