Three hundred and fifty high school students debated topics from religion in schools to whether to send troops into Sudan following a bombing in 2009 as part of the National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C.
I was one of them, nominated to participate in the six-day conference, which took place from Jan. 31 through Feb. 6.
I can honestly say it was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had in my life.
I learned so much about the government system and how it works, as well as a bit of political journalism.
We were put in different groups, named for great leaders of the past. My group was the John Marshall Group.
We participated in a "Model Congress" simulation, as well as "If I Were President." These programs put us in situations where we assumed government roles and had to make decisions that would affect our country, its citizens and the rest of the world. The groups debated and looked at situations from every aspect and angle.
We learned that government leaders don't have it as easy as we all thought.
We relied solely on each other.
We worked together, ate together and traveled together. One student remarked at breakfast the last day, "We should have a high school of all NYLC students. Never break up a winning team."
Part of the learning experience came from being assigned a room with three people we had never met before. My roommates were Danielle Baker from Seattle, and Devina Burger from Boston, and they have become some of the best friends I have. I also found good friends among the other members of the Marshall group and with our extraordinary faculty adviser, Trellis Duplessis.
We looked to her for advice, but she encouraged us to work things out for ourselves, saying "Get debating or so help me John Marshall," and urging us on by having everyone scream, "Marshall group totally rocks."
NYLC scholars were also allowed to tour the monuments of Washington, D.C. After each tour, there was a debriefing in which we talked about what we saw and felt when at the famous landmarks. There was much discussion about the inscription on the wall of the Korean War Memorial, "Freedom Is Not Free." Another extended conversation followed our sighting of Bono from U2 at Capitol Hill.
I think the most surprising thing I learned is that the work of the government is a much harder job than anyone would expect. I think most of the students went with the misconception that politicians are bad people.
Two other girls from Arizona and I met with Congressman Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz). It was during the election for the speaker of the house in which he was supporting his fellow Arizona Representative and friend, John Shadegg.
For every person who ran into his office, saying, "Come on, Jim, you got an election," he would fire back, "Hold your horses, I'm talking to these young ladies here."
He answered all our questions thoroughly and with patience and even took pictures with us.
I now have a newfound respect for these government officials, and I'll think twice before I judge them from what is said by the media.
I would suggest that any student who wants to go to the conference take the opportunity. It could very well be the best thing you do in high school. There are scholarships for those who can't afford the tuition. Talk to your teachers or any student who has been to NYLC, any of them can submit a nomination for you.
It is truly memorable.
Editor's note: The NYLC is designed to instruct and enrich promising students in a hands-on, experiential atmosphere while preparing them for a lifetime of leadership.
NYLC offers students the opportunity to discuss current events and issues with top policy makers in Washington, D.C., analyze concepts, and then put them immediately to work. This dynamic program features creative decision-making simulations that challenge young minds to solve problems and lead their peers through role-playing exercises in an energy-charged environment far from the traditional classroom experience. For more information, visit the Web site www.cylc.org/nylc/