"It still does not seem real. I went to visit President Obama and the first lady at the White House in Washington, D.C. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and one I will always remember," Tanner, 18, said Friday.
"When she was here she told them she wanted them to come visit her at the White House, and some of students were skeptical about whether she really meant it, or if she was just being nice," said Harper Principal Leonetta Sanders, who accompanied the students on the trip. "But then when I handed out permission slips for their parents to sign, that's when they knew the first lady had kept her word."
And while the White House did not pay for transportation and lodging, it did arrange a tour of the nation's capital, including visits to the National Museum of American History and the Washington Monument. The Chicago law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates funded the trip, according to Sanders.
The students stayed at a hotel and then spent the day at the White House, where they had lunch with the Obamas.
"We had turkey or ham sandwiches made with fresh lettuce and tomatoes from Mrs. Obama's garden. We also had chips, cookies and orange juice or bottled water. Real healthy stuff for lunch," recalled Kanterell Kennedy, a 16-year-old sophomore. "Pretty much we spent all day Wednesday at the White House."
The group met first with the first lady, and then the president joined them.
"The first lady told us to keep out heads up high, stay out of trouble and always strive to do our very best," said Malik Cook-Bey, a 17-year-old junior. "I can say that she genuinely cares about us and was interested in knowing about our future."
Rocky Lane said the one thing he learned about the nation's commander in chief is that he has a good sense of humor.
"The president is funny. He got jokes and is really a cool dude when you get to know him," said the 19-year-old senior. "If I had to describe the president and first lady I would say they are down-to-earth people who just happen to be running the country."
And David Ellis, 17, said the president told him if he ever finds himself in danger always remember, "'God's got your back.'
"He gave us high-fives, asked us about the type of music we listen to and who are some of our heroes in life," added Ellis, who plans to study psychology at DePaul this fall. "I could hang out with him any day."
Wearing different hats all the time is no easy task, Cameron Littlejohn said the first lady told him.
"She said it's no cakewalk. She has to balance being a mother, wife and the first lady. I told her that every thing about Englewood is not bad. Yeah, it's some crazy things that happen here, but there are also a lot of positive things that come out of Englewood and Harper, too, for that matter," Littlejohn said.
"She was a real inspiration to me. I thanked her for her words of encouragement and assured her when I make it I will reach back to help other Englewood students reach their dreams," said Littlejohn.
In a statement, Tina Tchen, chief of staff to the first lady, said the presidential couple enjoyed hosting the students and wished them well in the future.
“The first lady was delighted to welcome the students from Harper High School. In their conversation, the first lady and the students caught up and discussed their graduation, prom, and post-high school plans," Tchen said. "Students also had the opportunity to talk with the president in the Oval Office, where he showed them the original Emancipation Proclamation that hangs there.”
It might not be the last time the first lady or president sees Tanner and Ellis. Both said after visiting Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C., they are now considering attending there instead.
"I was all set to go to Marquette University to study political science, but now I'm thinking Howard," Tanner said, one of two Harper students chosen as a 2013 Gates Millennium scholar. "I plan to run for elected office when I finish graduate school. Maybe even the presidency. Then I could invite Harper students back to the White House."