LAND O'LAKES — Kiran Sharma has run for student council every year since grade school.
"I haven't been close yet," the Land O'Lakes High School junior acknowledged. "But I always run. I have always had a keen interest in politics."
So Sharma, 16, was more than a little excited to receive an invitation to participate in this year's Presidential Inaugural Conference, complete with special seating to watch Barack Obama's swearing-in on Monday. About 1,900 high school students from around the country were selected based largely on their academic achievement and leadership potential. Participants must pay $3,195 in tuition, plus travel and other expenses.
Sharma is the only student known to be attending from Pasco County.
"It is an honor to be invited," he said. "I view this as a once in a lifetime chance. There is really nothing like this."
The conference also will include visits to the Smithsonian museums and guest lectures by former NATO commander Wesley Clark and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Sharma's U.S. history teacher hasn't given him any extra work to prepare. But his grandmother has.
"I've printed out things on Condoleezza Rice for him to read on the plane ride," Brenda Medlin said. "I think she's great."
She turned to her grandson.
"Be sure to shake her hand," she instructed, as he grinned.
Sharma has visited Washington, D.C. before. And he has been around his share of political leaders. His uncle has hosted fundraisers for Obama and invited Sharma to a Democratic seminar in Nantucket, where he met officials who sparked his curiosity about how government can make a difference in the world.
"Our nation's history was built on politics," he said. "It's a way to communicate with countries around the world."
The son of a doctor, Sharma remains interested in studying medicine. But he also wants to create an international business.
He figured his International Baccalaureate classes, combined with a background in politics and language skills, could help him focus on his ambitions. First, though, he just wants to have some fun in the nation's capital.
That includes a black tie gala on the night of the inauguration.
"I actually have to rent out a tux," Sharma said. "It makes me feel like I'm older than 16."
He expected the actual inauguration to be inspiring.
"To me, President Obama stands as a great symbol for being a president. He came from a background that was not as fortunate. However, he strove to be the best he could be," Sharma said. "He really stands as a symbol of success to me. It's really important to me to stand and be that close."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.