Founder's Day Ball held at Newseum draws largest crowd ever

Neil Kerwin and Gail Hanson honored with awards

When the doors opened at the Newseum on the night of Feb. 11, more students filed in than ever before to attend the annual Founder’s Day Ball.

This year’s event, sponsored by the American University Student Government, Residence Hall Association and American University Club Council, honored the leadership of President Neil Kerwin and Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson, who are both retiring from their positions this spring.

Founder’s Day Director Martin Valderruten said that what made this year’s event unique was the location and the variety of exhibits that could expose students to world events.

“I picked this location because it is very interactive and it’s somewhere we have never hosted the event before,” Valderruten said. “I think the news is something a lot of AU students are passionate about, and I think it is a great way to really see what’s going on around the world and a great learning opportunity.”

Valderruten said the venue search started soon after he was appointed to his position back in May 2016 by AUSG Vice President Samantha Vervaeke.

This year’s event was the largest Founder’s Day Ball yet with 2040 students in attendance, in comparison to the previous year’s event which ended up having 1867 students check in, despite there being about 300 more tickets distributed last year than this year, Vervaeke said. She said she knew she wanted the Newseum for Founder’s Day Ball from the beginning of the planning process but it took hard work and many negotiations to secure the location for the event.

“The Newseum is my favorite museum in the city, and it is a museum that you would normally have to pay to get to so it is super awesome that we are able to give students this chance to come in for free and experience the entire museum,” Vervaeke said. “I wanted something new, and I wanted something big and special.”

During the event, Hanson, who is retiring in March, and Kerwin, who is stepping down as president in May, were each awarded awarded the first ever Founder’s Award of Excellence. The award was introduced this year to honor individuals who have driven change and demonstrated leadership, Valderruten said.

In an interview with The Eagle upon receiving the award, Kerwin said he sensed something special would be done to honor Hanson during the evening, but he was not expecting to receive an award himself.

“It was a surprise,” Kerwin said. “I was honored to have it and I think it is going to be a wonderful tradition in successive years.”

Kerwin said that this year’s Founder’s Day Ball was very special as it was the final Founder’s Day Ball during his tenure as president. Sylvia Mathews Burwell will be taking over as president on June 1.

“It is the last one I’ll be attending as president, so you know there is a sense of a rite of passage,” Kerwin told The Eagle. “It is time that some other president will be attending these events and in this case, she will be enjoying them just like I have.”

Rabia Muhammad, a freshman in the School of International Service, said that as a first-time attendee to both the Founder’s Day Ball and the Newseum, she liked the experience and looks forward to coming back to Founder’s Day events in the future.

“I’ve never been here before so it was really interesting to be able to go to this place that I would otherwise have to pay money for,” Muhammad said. “I really enjoyed walking around and seeing most of the exhibits, and I think Founder’s Day Ball is a really cool way for you to interact with everybody else on campus that you normally wouldn’t get a chance to interact with.”

Mithila Samak, a junior in the School of Communication, said she enjoyed the flexibility guests were given in experiencing every part of the Newseum, from all the exhibits to the view on the rooftop.

“I like how they let you have access to the entire museum,” Samak said. “They didn’t really block anything off, and I like how they opened up the balcony so you could go outside, which was really cool.”

Emily Murtaugh, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and a volunteer at the Newseum, said that seeing the museum decorated for this event with disco balls and music playing was a unique experience for her since the venue does not typically look that way. Murtaugh said she hopes students are reminded of the importance of press freedom and First Amendment rights after taking in the exhibits.

“The Newseum is on Pennsylvania Avenue where history is made every single day, and to have all the AU students be here solidifies the importance the First Amendment gives us,” Murtaugh said. “It gives us freedom of speech, of press, of religion, of assembly and petition, and those are all important things to AU students and to Americans as a whole that they need to be reminded of valuing and protecting.”

Valderruten said that organizing this year’s Founder’s Day Ball has been an exceptionally enjoyable experience overall.

“Being in Student Government for four years and ending my time at AU, planning this event has been one of the most rewarding parts of my AU career,” Valderruten said. “Being able to bring people together in joy and fun is so beyond rewarding that I cannot put it into words.”

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