The 46 students boarded a bus Sunday night to travel overnight to the presidential inauguration. They spent the day in the capital and then boarded the bus back to Elmhurst.
When they arrived in Washington, they walked about three and a half miles to reach the National Mall, where the festivities were held. The effort was worth it even though they were pretty far from Barack Obama's swearing-in, the students said.
"We were by the Washington Monument," said freshman Abraham Mulberry. "Luckily they had screens so we could see it up close and personal. We still got the feeling we were participating in something historic."
The trip was organized by student groups at Elmhurst College and supported by student government. The trip cost $20 and was open to any student. Seats on the bus were available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Stanley Washington, a junior who is president of the college's Black Student Union, said the atmosphere in Washington, D.C., was celebratory and energizing.
"Walking was a little tough, but we got through it," he said. "There were a lot of detours and street closures. It reminded me a little of the Taste of Chicago with all the people and vendors."
As for Obama's speech, the students said they reached the National Mall for the last couple minutes of it. They listened to it as they walked, however.
Washington praised the president's message, which he said was about bringing the country together.
"It made me feel a sense of unity at a time when it seems like there's such a divide," he said.
Another student, Meredithe Mimlitz, a sophomore, said she enjoyed meeting people from throughout the country who descended on Washington, D.C., to see the event. She said they met people from New York, New Jersey and other states.
"It was cool to think we support a lot of the same things and a lot of the same ideas," Mimlitz said.
After the ceremony, the students and several teachers and staff who accompanied them, went to the Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Since the inauguration took place on the day set aside to honor King, Mulberry said he was particularly moved by the visit to that monument, which he said depicts the civil rights leader as if he is breaking through a mountain.
"It really kind of brought it all home — how amazing Martin Luther King was and how far our country has come," he said.
At the end of the day, the students grabbed a pizza dinner and got back on the bus to head back to Elmhurst.
H. Scott Metheney, chaplain at the college, said he hopes Obama's achievement as the nation's first black president will help students realize that their goals — whatever they may be — are attainable through hard work.
He also hopes they will someday tell their grandchildren about the trip.
"This was important for us," he said. "My hope is they will look back and say they were there."