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Black America Goes to Washington »

When Barack Obama became the first African-American to become president, thousands began to dream about heading to the inauguration in Washington, D.C. Maya Pope-Chappell wasn’t any different from the countless number of New Yorkers who were planning the pilgrimage. But there was a problem. The 24-year-old graduate student at the City University of New York didn’t have the clout to get into one of the many balls much less the funds to pay for an expensive room. Despite her big dreams and shoestring budget, Pope-Chappell kept trying—e-mailing and calling senators like Hillary Clinton.

Finally she did what 150,000 other New Yorkers had done—enter a lottery through New York State Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. Last week, her dreams came true. Pope-Chappell’s received an e-mail informing her that she was one of only 175 other lottery winners from the state who will attend the swearing-in ceremony. She’ll receive two general admission tickets to the inauguration, witnessing history firsthand.

State Senator Schumer announced the winners on Thursday. He said he believed the lottery was the fairest decision his team could have made. “After an historic election season and the extraordinary nomination of Barack Obama, it is time for America to celebrate the bright future that is ahead of us,” he said at a press conference announcing the winners. caught up with Pope-Chappell the day after she found out she’ll either be standing or sitting close by President-elect Obama as he accepts the oath as the forty-fourth president and delivers his inaugural address.

ESSENCE.COM: Congratulations on this big win. So, what made you apply for the tickets in the first place?
MAYA POPE-CHAPPELL: I knew it was going to be a historic inauguration and I’ve been excited about it since the very beginning. I’m a (budding) journalist and I wanted to go, just to report because I knew I’d encounter plenty of stories there. Plus, I want to witness it for myself.

ESSENCE.COM: When you applied for the tickets did you ever think you’d actually win?
My mom told me I needed to call my state senators to get tickets. I tried calling for a couple of days and left a few messages. Then, I e-mailed with my personal information, explaining who I was and why I wanted to go. Honestly, I kind of had a feeling that something would happen. But that didn’t take away anything from the surprise.

ESSENCE.COM: How did they let you know?
I got an e-mail saying I had won two tickets. So I called the senator’s office to verify whether or not the e-mail was real and they said yes. That’s when I got really excited.

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ESSENCE.COM: Excellent. Have you told any of your family? What’s your family’s reaction?
I called my mom and she screamed. And she was actually in Grant Park the night that Obama accepted the nomination. She wasn’t actually where she could see him, but she was looking at one of the screens, so she was really excited. I felt like she got to go to that and I get to go to the second part.

ESSENCE.COM: So, of course we all want to know whom are you taking with you?
I have someone in mind but I’m not ready to reveal whom because some people might get upset.

ESSENCE.COM: What do think the experience will be like for you?
Being among millions and millions of excited people-kind of like what happened on Election Night. I went to Times Square after the election was called that night and it was just amazing, so I imagine it would be like that just times a hundred.

ESSENCE.COM: You’re only 24 years old and grew up in an era where perhaps things were a little bit easier for you as a Black woman than say, for your mom. What does having Barack Obama as our new president mean to you?
It means a lot actually. Yes, I’m young and I didn’t experience the things that maybe my mom or my grandmother went through but they definitely shared their stories. I studied African-American history as part of my major in college so I definitely recognize the struggle and I don’t take it for granted by any means. I take it humbly. I think about my ancestors who weren’t able to experience what I’m about to experience. For me, I just think this is phenomenal.