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What the Obamas' guests over the years tell us about the state of our union.

Meet some of the people who've attended the State of the Union as guests.

When it comes to the State of the Union, the first lady has the best seat in the house.

You'll find Michelle Obama enjoying tonight's speech from a balcony to the president's left. It's the same place she has watched each of the president's other six State of the Union addresses (2009's address wasn't technically a State of the Union).


First lady Michelle Obama waves before President Obama's State of the Union speech at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2015. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

As has been tradition for nearly 30 years, she'll be joined by some special guests.

It's tradition that the president and first lady invite special guests to the State of the Union, and this year is no different. This year's group, seated around Michelle Obama, includes small-business owners, veterans, college students, state and local politicians, activists, a CEO, a police chief, and a Syrian refugee.

Past presidents have invited similarly diverse subsections of the country to the address, ranging from unsung heroes to individuals who simply represent a common struggle. In 2002, President George W. Bush invited the flight attendants who thwarted the "shoe bomb" attack; in 2000, President Bill Clinton invited baseball legend Hank Aaron.

President Obama blows a kiss to the first lady before delivering his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, 2013. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

No spot is as coveted as the one directly next to the first lady. Traditionally, it's been reserved for some very special guests.

During President Obama's administration, the seat has been filled by loved ones of shooting victims, first responders, a veteran, and others. And as the president makes his strongest push for gun control yet, 2016's won't be any different, with an empty chair left to represent all the victims of gun violence.

Let's take a look back at some of Michelle Obama's past guests and the causes they represented:

2015: Michelle Obama spends time with Rebekah Erler, an embodiment of economic resilience.

At the time of the State of the Union, Rebekah Erler was a 36-year-old accountant, wife, and mother of two boys. Her story was powerful largely because of how unremarkable and relatable it was.

Erler and her husband were hit hard by the Great Recession. Her husband's construction business failed, and the two of them bounced from job to job thereafter, making their way from Seattle to Minneapolis.

After attending her local community college, Erler found accounting work, and together, she and her husband bought their first home. Still, the two found themselves buried under a mountain of bills and expenses. Her invite represented all the hard-working American families who still barely scrape by, stretched thin.

First lady Michelle Obama and Rebekah Erler during the 2015 State of the Union address. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

2014: Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg symbolizes the need for an efficient VA.

The president closed his speech with an anecdote about Sgt. Remsburg, a 10-deployment veteran who was nearly killed when a roadside bomb went off in Afghanistan, leaving shrapnel in his brain. His recovery was long and hard, but after emerging from a coma, Remsburg made a near-full recovery.

"Men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy," said President Obama. "Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress — to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen."

Michelle Obama and Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg before the State of the Union on Jan. 28, 2014. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

2013: Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton knows true loss.

On Jan. 29, 2013, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed on Chicago's South Side. Just two weeks after the King College Prep honor student's death, President Obama was to deliver the annual State of the Union. Hadiya's parents, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel A. Pendleton, attended the speech, sitting next to the first lady.

President Obama referenced the Pendletons while calling on Congress to vote on common-sense gun measures.

"Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence," said the president. "They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote. They deserve a simple vote."

Michelle Obama and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton during the State of the Union on Feb. 13, 2013. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

2012: Astronaut Mark Kelly takes a stand against gun violence.

Best-selling author, astronaut, and retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly joined Michelle Obama for the 2012 State of the Union. His wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, survived a January 2011 assassination attempt. Ever since, Kelly and Giffords have advocated on behalf of gun control.

Mark Kelly with Michelle Obama before President Obama's address on Jan. 24, 2012. Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images.

2011: John and Roxanna Green, whose daughter was killed just days earlier in the assassination attempt on Gabby Giffords' life.

In the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting, President Obama invited John and Roxanna Green to be guests at the State of the Union.

Their daughter, Christina-Taylor, was born on Sept. 11, 2001, and her life was cut tragically short in the attack.


Michelle Obama applauds during the president's State of the Union on Jan. 25, 2011. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

2010: Fort Hood first responders demonstrate bravery in the face of terror.

Mark Todd and Kimberly Munley were two first responders at the Nov. 5, 2009, attack at Fort Hood, Texas, that left 13 dead and more than 30 injured. Their fearlessness earned them a spot on the guest list to the annual address.


Police officers Mark Todd and Kimberly Munley of Killeen, Texas, join Michelle Obama before President Obama's first State of the Union on Jan. 27, 2010. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

There's certainly a trend here: gun violence.

The families of gun violence victims have been heavily represented during President Obama's terms in office, and tonight, with an empty chair, is no different.

In a room filled with some of the most powerful people on Earth, it's good to see everyday people get recognition.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

All images provided by Prudential Emerging Visionaries

Collins after being selected by Prudential Emerging Visionaries

True

A changemaker is anyone who takes creative action to solve an ongoing problem—be it in one’s own community or throughout the world.

And when it comes to creating positive change, enthusiasm and a fresh perspective can hold just as much power as years of experience. That’s why, every year, Prudential Emerging Visionaries celebrates young people for their innovative solutions to financial and societal challenges in their communities.

This national program awards 25 young leaders (ages 14-18) up to $15,000 to devote to their passion projects. Additionally, winners receive a trip to Prudential’s headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, where they receive coaching, skills development, and networking opportunities with mentors to help take their innovative solutions to the next level.

For 18-year-old Sydnie Collins, one of the 2023 winners, this meant being able to take her podcast, “Perfect Timing,” to the next level.

Since 2020, the Maryland-based teen has provided a safe platform that promotes youth positivity by giving young people the space to celebrate their achievements and combat mental health stigmas. The idea came during the height of Covid-19, when Collins recalled social media “becoming a dark space flooded with news,” which greatly affected her own anxiety and depression.

Knowing that she couldn’t be the only one feeling this way, “Perfect Timing” seemed like a valuable way to give back to her community. Over the course of 109 episodes, Collins has interviewed a wide range of guests—from other young influencers to celebrities, from innovators to nonprofit leaders—all to remind Gen Z that “their dreams are tangible.”

That mission statement has since evolved beyond creating inspiring content and has expanded to hosting events and speaking publicly at summits and workshops. One of Collins’ favorite moments so far has been raising $7,000 to take 200 underserved girls to see “The Little Mermaid” on its opening weekend, to “let them know they are enough” and that there’s an “older sister” in their corner.

Of course, as with most new projects, funding for “Perfect Timing” has come entirely out of Collins’ pocket. Thankfully, the funding she earned from being selected as a Prudential Emerging Visionary is going toward upgraded recording equipment, the support of expert producers, and skill-building classes to help her become a better host and public speaker. She’ll even be able to lease an office space that allows for a live audience.

Plus, after meeting with the 24 other Prudential Emerging Visionaries and her Prudential employee coach, who is helping her develop specific action steps to connect with her target audience, Collins has more confidence in a “grander path” for her work.

“I learned that my network could extend to multiple spaces beyond my realm of podcasting and journalism when industry leaders are willing to share their expertise, time, and financial support,” she told Upworthy. “It only takes one person to change, and two people to expand that change.”

Prudential Emerging Visionaries is currently seeking applicants for 2024. Winners may receive up to $15,000 in awards and an all-expenses-paid trip to Prudential’s headquarters with a parent or guardian, as well as ongoing coaching and skills development to grow their projects.

If you or someone you know between the ages of 14 -18 not only displays a bold vision for the future but is taking action to bring that vision to life, click here to learn more. Applications are due by Nov. 2, 2023.
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