How Environmental Sciences Got Me to a State Dinner at the White House

Blogger: Stephen Chen, Jr. Environmental Specialist | Folsom, CA, USA
October 21, 2015

Background

On June 14th, 2014, President Obama was invited to speak at the University of California Irvine’s Class of 2014 graduation commencement ceremony. UC Irvine had sent over 1,000 letters to the White House asking him to come; President Obama admitted that a big reason why he came was “simply because you [UC Irvine] asked.” He spoke extensively on climate change and encouraged the Class of 2014 to use their newfound knowledge to solve world problems.

It was such an honor to have President Obama speak at my graduation that I wrote a letter thanking him. I highlighted some points from his speech and shared that I would be doing air quality work in the environmental industry.

I didn’t have any high expectations. If the letter didn’t get lost in the massive pile of letters the White House receives each year, I figured at most I’d receive a thank-you email.

But a year and a half later, on September 14th, 2015, I received a call from an unknown number. The individual on the other end introduced himself as someone who works at the Social Office at the White House and that he and two of his colleagues had read my letter! He shared with me that because I wrote about climate change, those in the White House Social Office thought I would be appropriate to invite to the upcoming State Dinner with President Xi Jinping of China. I told him that I was very interested and he sent me an official invitation through e-mail as well as a physical copy through mail.

At first, telling my parents and my friends, no one could believe that it was true. Instead of getting congratulations, I received quite a bit of “what the heck” and “wait, I’m so confused.” I didn’t blame them; I couldn’t get it out of my head that this could potentially be an elaborate hoax. However, as the date drew closer, more articles on President Xi Jinping’s arrival surfaced online and more confirmation e-mails surfaced in my inbox. On September 23rd (which is my 23rd birthday, incidentally), my mother, who would also be accompanying me, called me telling me that a copy of the invitation had arrived in the mail. White House, here we come!

State Dinner at the White House

Upon arriving, my mom and I had to walk through two sets of airplane-like security before entering the southeastern wing of the White House. We were greeted by at least 25 White House employees and soldiers who warmly welcomed us. There was a booth with many small envelopes lined up. We selected ours, with out names printed in cursive on top; enclosed was our dinner table number. We continue walking until we reach a line, where eventually we handed our name cards to a man who formally announced our arrival.

“Mr. Stephen Chen and Ms. Chienfei Chen.”

We walked through another hallway, where at least 15 photographers from big name news broadcasting stations took pictures of us as we walk through. Definitely the closest thing I’ll ever experience to being a celebrity hah! You can actually see us in this C-SPAN video at about minute mark 7:20.

We were then immediately greeted by waiters and waitresses holding trays of champagne and red wine. We each take a glass and proceed to explore. There were beautiful sitting rooms, libraries stocked with books from floor to ceiling, and rooms filled with each President’s unique set of fine china selected for his term in the White House. Gorgeous, and great photo opportunities!

Everyone was friendly and upbeat, so making conversation was not difficult at all. My mom encouraged me to mingle, so we split up.  As I was heading out of one of the china rooms, I made eye contact with someone walking in and immediately introduced myself. He responded with a smile and says, “Mark, nice to meet you”. It takes me maybe half a millisecond before I realize that I just met the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg! Of course I tell him what an honor it is to meet him. He’s a really nice guy and his wife, Priscilla, takes a photo of us. 

Afterwards, I walked around enjoying the live music, champagne and appetizers while chatting with other guests.

Then, at about 7:45, we started lining up for dinner upstairs, where we were greeted by at least 20 soldiers and a live band of at least 30 musicians. Upon entering the official State Dining Room, we were greeted by President Obama himself, as well as First Lady Michelle Obama, President Xi Jinping, and Xi’s wife Madame Peng. President Obama greeted everyone personally—the President of the United States actually shook my hand and personally thanked me for coming to his dinner. It was such a cool experience and absolutely surreal, to say the least. Once we were seated, President Obama and President Xi both gave toasts to the guests and we began our meal.

For each State Dinner, the chefs try to design their meals to include influence from the country of the visiting President. Here’s what was on the menu:

  • First dish: Wild Mushroom Soup with Truffle. Absolutely delicious! A variety of mushrooms, including shiitake and truffle, as well as pistachios. For this one bowl of soup, they used four pieces of china.
  • Second dish: butter-poached Maine lobster with mushroom, leek, and spinach rice roll. The lobster claw was literally the most perfect piece of lobster. I wanted to eat it all in one bite, but I looked around and everyone was cutting it into little pieces. The rice roll was also good, but I felt like it was more Americanized of a dish than it was Asian.
  • Third dish: Colorado lamb with fried milk and baby broccoli. Everything was delicious, but what stood out to me the most was the fried milk, which I had never had before. The outside was kind of like a tempura casing, but the inside was almost like a liquid mochi texture.
  • Final dish: lemon poppy seed bread pudding with lychee sorbet. By far my favorite portion of our meal. Every bite was so rich and I was amazed at how perfect the ratio of the pudding and the bread was.

After dinner was over, both Presidents made another toast to the guests before we made our way to the ball room. While walking there, I got a chance to talk briefly with Secretary of State John Kerry, and I also spoke to one of the staff members who read my letter and gave her a big thank you.

About ten minutes after entering the ball room, the lights dim and R&B singer Ne-Yo walked, twirling his microphone. He put on an awesome performance, and even dedicated one of his major hits “Miss Independent” to the First Lady and his mother, who was in attendance.

Ne-Yo concluded his performance at just about 11:00, and President Obama gave one last toast to the crowed, sharing how wonderful the night was. On our way out, my mom and I got a chance to talk to Ne-Yo as he was helping clean up the stage. We thanked him for his amazing performance; I could tell that he felt honored to perform for the President and his guests.  

On our way out, I see Mark Cuban. Anyone who follows the NBA knows how eccentric Mark can be, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to introduce myself. When I asked, he admitted this was his first State Dinner and bounced the question back to me—and also, how I was able to get an invite in the first place? I shared my story and gave me a high five. We briefly talked about the upcoming NBA season before we both head downstairs and towards the exit.

With all the events concluded for the night, my mom and I head outside and take a taxi back to the hotel.

Reflection

I stayed up pretty late that night just thinking about how amazing a night it was. Every aspect of the night was so well executed. What an absolute honor that I, at age 23, was one of the President’s 120 invites, mingling with CEOs of some of the biggest corporations in the world. Considering the 318 million people in America and the 1.36 billion in China, to be chosen to meet both presidents was also an honor.

More than anything, I hope this inspires those reading that even the smallest things can lead to enormous results. As someone just a year out of undergrad, I was nowhere near the CEO status that a majority of the attendees had. But simply because I thought it would be cool to write a well-written thank-you letter, I was invited to enter the White House, wine and dine with famous people, and enjoy a private concert by Ne-Yo.

I haven’t fully soaked it all in, but being mini-celebrity and meeting famous people who I’ve only heard about and seen on TV was such a cool experience… and an awesome 23rd birthday present.

Reader Comments (35)

Thanks for sharing this experience with us Stephen! What an incredible opportunity, all from writing a thank you letter. It is very inspirational to have the concept reinforced - small things can lead to big results! Congratulations!

WOW. Thank you so much for sharing with us! And behold the power of the thank-you note!

You're fantastically thoughtful, and you absolutely deserved this honor. Congratulations!

I'm one of those Moms who has always insisted on hand written thank you notes by my now 24 and 27 year old daughters.  From all of us Moms, great job!  Manners are still alive and well in America.

Stephen, I felt like I was there with you and enjoyed every minute of your evening. Thank you for sharing your amazing experience and congratulations!

This may be as close as I ever get to a state dinner!  Thanks for bringing this to life for us.

Such a great story, Stephen! Thank you for sharing......amazing how those details, like writing a thank you note, make all the difference in the world.

 

Stephen,  What an honor!  Congratulations to you.  It goes to show that gratitude and courtesy is recognized by the best of them.  Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

 

What a great account of your exciting evening and what an honor.  Congratulations!

Good for you Stephen!

Your continued modesty and humility throughout - and in spite of - your impressive story speaks volumes, in my opinion.  Many congratulations to you!  Thank you for sharing your story with us; I found it to be really inspiring! :)

Stephen,

If anyone deserves to be invited to such an important event is you. Your humility, and level of understanding of the importance of such an invitation speak volume. I enjoyed reading your reflection and the impact this event had on you.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us;  What a birthday gift this was!

 

Stephen

Ditto on Phil's comments above.   Also, on the theme of "23", in Chicago that number is synonymous with Michael Jordan.    In terms of individuals who are at the top of their game, you have certainly reached one of the highest levels of performance and humility that others can aspire to.  As a parent of a young grad such as yourself who recently joined the workforce as a young professional in technologies, I have been inspired to share your story with him.  When he turns 23 (soon), I'm going to share a copy of your blog with him, along with a gift of an MJ jersey which has been waiting for him since he was younger.

Hi Stephen,

What a wonderful and memorable experience, congratulations!  I could visualize the evening by your descriptions,.  Opportunities like this are life changing, it is a new beginning for you and your perspective on the future. The power of communication.

 

Great story!  So interesting.  Made me want to read more.

Never underestimate the power of a "thank you" note.  I tell my kids this all the time.  Kudos to you Stephen!  What a wonderful experience for you and your mom.  She must be so proud of you; first because you are obviously an intelligent young man and second, because you listened to your mom when she taught you the value of good manners.  I am sure this won't be the last time you are invited to something spectacular.  Good luck in your future endeavors!

WOW! Stephen, I love your story. Thank you so much for sharing and for the details!

I had to laugh at myself just now, I'm reading your post thinking to myself I should comment about how you made this event feel real to me. Then it was kind of a naaaa, that's so goofy, I have nothing to say. Then click, the light bulb went on, and I realized your (much more intelligent) note started this whole adventure.

Again, thank you for sharing your tale, I think we at HDR are lucky you're here.

Stephan,

Thank you for sharing your 5 minutes of fame (probably 5 hours!). We are all a product of our individual experiences. May this experience make you a strong leader for HDR and for whomever you may touch in your time here on this planet. Keep our air clean!

What an amazing story - thanks for sharing it!

What an amazing adventure - thank you for sharing it with us!

Thank you so much for the detailed share of your invite to the White House.  It was very inspiring.  

Stephen,

I have been so excited for you to have this opportunity from the start and have enjoyed hearing about every detail. One of my favorite phone calls ever was having you call to request PTO to go to the White House! My jaw dropped. Congratulations, again, on being selected for this honor!

 

Stephen,

This experience of yours is such an inspiration to many of us. I could not stop reading and I kept saying “wow” as I read each paragraph. Congratulations and thank you for sharing.

Way to Represent - Well done!

As in a previous comment written, you described the experience with incredible reality -- I actually zoned out of the office and thought I was standing there with your mother! (I was at Lunch, HR, in case you ask! :)  No doubt you'll make an excellent Journalist as a fallback!

Treasure the opportunity, but no worries, you will have more, perhaps even more grand!

Regards, David

The best stories are always life experiences. Thanks for sharing such a fantastic experience and life lesson. Your mother must be proud and quite a lady to instill in you these values. I expect this is only a small step in a rich wonderful life you have ahead of you. Congratulations.

 

 

Stephen, what a great story.  Thanks for sharing.  I especially appreciated all the  details you provided.  They allowed us to live this tremendous experience vicariously through you. I also really appreciate the photos. What great memories you will always have of this occasion. And your mom... she is beautiful.  At first i thought she was your girlfriend - she looks so young! Thanks for sharing and congrats!

 Stephen - Thank you for sharing this exceptional experience with us. And thank you for all the interesting detail you provided. I am sure this was an incredible evening for you and your mom.

Thanks for sharing your story Stephen.  What  pleasure it was to read it.  I can see why you think you were "just randomly selected", but based on your account of this very special experience, your attention to detail, your appreciation and your insight.  Whoever selected you saw all of that in the words you shared. Best wishes.

That must have been a great letter. Would you be willing to share?

What an awesome experience Stephen.  Thank you for sharing your story with such detail.

Long live the thank-you note!  Stephen, I'm so impressed!  Congratulations for taking the initiative to communicate when most people might let the opportunity pass.  Look what can result!  (Excellent descriptions of the food, btw. Yum.)

I kept seeing your picture on our HDR home page and finally took a few minutes out of my work day to read it. What an exciting, amazing experience that must have been for both you and your mom.  The detail with which you write is so descriptive I felt like I was walking the halls of the White House with you!  As another mother commented, I too have taught my daughters the importance of thank you notes and letters.  This exciting evening of yours proves that good feedback does get acknowledged! Thank you for sharing.

Wow! What a great story! Thanks for sharing all the great detail, simply amazing and what a great honor for you and it was great that you were able to share it with your mother. Glad that you are part of HDR and it just goes to show what kind of employees are engaged with our company. Thanks again!

What a great story!

 

Stephen, I am so delighted to find and read this snapshot.  Thank you for taking the time to share an experience that only a very few will ever have.  I feel almost like I was there, thanks to your energetic recap!

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