Tyrone Davis describes himself as a low-key guy, someone who is not easily excited.
But even Davis had to admit to getting a little fired up when his telephone rang on a recent Friday. It was the White House calling, letting Davis know that he was being invited to sit in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box for President Obama’s State of the Union speech.
“I was thinking, wow, this is crazy,” Davis says. “My response was, ‘Of course I can make it.'”
So a few days later, Davis enjoyed a whirlwind day in Washington, D.C., culminating with the State of the Union speech in the U.S. House chamber.
Davis is now in law school at Elon University, but his invitation to Washington was the result of his interest in the environment that was sparked when he earned a bachelor’s degree (in 2007) and master’s degree in public administration (in 2009) at NC State. “I tried to focus on policy, and focus my studies on environmental and energy issues,” Davis says.
Davis, who grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., went to work as an intern with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) after he finished graduate school at NC State. As an EDF Climate Corps fellow, Davis helped Elizabeth City State University find ways to become more energy efficient. The university then hired Davis on a temporary basis as a sustainability coordinator. He ended up showing the school how to save more than $31,000 a year.
“One thing that was easier than I expected was trying to change the culture,” Davis says. “It just came from me walking around the campus to see how things operated. I would walk around and talk to people. It kind of got them thinking.”
It was his work at Elizabeth City State University that prompted officials at the EDF to give Davis’ name to the White House as a possible guest at the State of the Union address. Davis was in Hong Kong as part of a study abroad program at Elon’s law school when he first heard from someone at the EDF that his name had been given to the White House.
“I just thought they would do some story on me or that my name might be mentioned in the speech,” says Davis, who hopes to work in some area of environmental law after he graduates from law school in May.
But a couple of weeks later, Davis found himself in Washington, D.C. His day included a tour of the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, where he met several top officials, and then a tour of the White House. That was followed by a reception in the East Room and a chance to have his photo taken with the first lady. “It was just a great experience,” Davis says.
One of the highlights of his White House visit was seeing various paintings of past presidents and first ladies. That may seem surprising, given that Davis is legally blind and he couldn’t see the paintings unless he was standing next to them. “I learned a little bit of the history behind some of those paintings,” he says.
Davis’ vision also limited what he could see at the State of the Union. He could figure out where President Obama was standing, but could not make out the president himself. At one point, Davis heard applause for someone walking behind him and has to ask someone seated near him who the applause was for. It was a soldier who was making his way to his seat.
“That’s the sort of thing I have to deal with on a daily basis,” Davis says. “I have to concentrate and listen a little bit harder.”
Davis had a brief opportunity to get a photo with the president after the speech, and then enjoyed talking with one of Michelle Obama’s other guests – a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing – when they both got back to the hotel that evening.
“It really did happen fast,” Davis says of his day in Washington. “I tried to take in as much as I could. The president and first lady were very warm and sincere people. The whole experience seemed very unreal.”