Stephanie Ray found out that she would be spending four months in Washington, D.C. the day after her sister accepted a job that would take her from the nation's capital back to Arizona.
"My sister was in Washington doing public relations work for 4-H," the Payson resident said, "and she decided to find me a job back there because she was lonely. I applied to be a tour guide for 4-H, but she took this great job with the Arizona Diamondbacks in Tucson the day before I was notified."
Ray, who graduated from Payson High School last year, was one of just six college-age students nationwide accepted as a program assistant at the National 4-H Center, located a mile from Washington, D.C. in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Designed for students who want to learn more about the nation's capital, the program accepts young people who are concentrating their college studies in political science, history, education, communications, parks and recreation, or related areas.
Once there, Ray will participate in a four-week training session through which she will become a licensed tour guide. Then her responsibilities will include escorting groups in and around the sites of Washington, D.C. and leading workshops and assemblies at the National 4-H Conference Center.
She will not only be paid while she is there, but also receive free room and board. "I'll be living in Chevy Chase in this really great old Victorian House," the 19-year-old said.
Ray has been involved with 4-H and FFA for seven years, holding a number of offices in the program at PHS, judging livestock, raising rabbits and participating in public speaking competitions. She has won a number of awards at both the Northern Gila County Fair and the Arizona State Fair.
During her high school years, Ray also served as sophomore and junior class treasurer, student body corresponding secretary, and was a member of the modern choir and both the cross country and track teams. Since graduating she has been taking classes at Eastern Arizona College Payson, and plans to major in athletic training and early childhood development at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colo.
A misconception that Ray wants to dispel is the notion that 4-H and FFA are just farming programs. "That's what they were once," she said, "but now FFA doesn't even stand for Future Farmers of America. It's just an acronym."
Actually 4-H now refers to itself as "an uncommon youth development organization" that provides young people with the learning opportunities and resources to explore their interests whatever they may be. While traditional agricultural programs are still available, 4-H also offers environmental and health programs, works closely with NASA to offer leadership opportunities, and provides a number of on-site learning programs at its 12-acre campus in Chevy Chase.
"At PHS we really did a lot of public speaking," she said. We won quite a few state competitions."
As a program assistant, she'll be able to put that public speaking experience to good use when her new responsibilities begin on Feb. 11. And while she would prefer that her sister be waiting to greet her when she gets off the plane in Washington, D.C., she is mostly excited about the experience that awaits her.
Besides, she knows she has strong support back in Payson. In addition to Ray's family and 4-H teacher Wendell Stevens, PHS English teacher Anna Van Zile and assistant youth pastor at Mountain Bible Church Donovan Christian were instrumental in helping her through the detailed application process that won her the appointment.
"I have lots of people behind me," she said. "I'll be just fine."