When one speaks of the nation’s finest they may refer to our police; our firefighters; our soldiers, sailors, or airmen, but seldom do they refer to a group of students not yet old enough to vote. I have had the privilege of spending the opening week of March with such a group of students. Men and women from across the United States, who have distinguished themselves in so many fields they can truly be called “the best our country has to offer”.

The United States Senate Youth Program has for close to 40 years now, gathered two students from every state along with another two from the District of Columbia and an additional pair from the Department of Defense schools overseas, for seven days of hands on examination of our nation’s government. Funded by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation these students spend a week living the life of foreign dignitaries: dining in grand ball rooms and State Department’s diplomatic reception rooms, staying in one of the finest hotels in our nation’s capital, joking with senators, and shaking hands with the President of the United States (all at a price tag of approximately $2 million).

Days were filled with speakers: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Justice Jean Paul Stevens, Deputy Secretary of State Armitage, Columnist Helen Thomas, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and of

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course a short address from President Bush himself. The short gaps between meals and speakers were filled with tours of every imaginable monument and state building from the Roosevelt Memorial, to Arlington National Cemetery, to the State Department, and White House. Students were filled with the finest food hot from the kitchen, the most current information straight from our nations policy makers, and an overwhelming feeling of being part of history.

Few of our guides allowed us to forget the remarkable opportunity we had been provided, but of course not even our guides were typical. As an additional courtesy the Hearst Foundation had spilt us into small groups of seven our eight, each with it’s own escort officer. It was not until our arrival in Washington that we learned that our escort officers were prominent Captains and Majors from every branch of the military, many of whom had distinguished themselves both in graduate studies and combat.

Seldom does one get to hear a Judge on the 10th Circuit court of Appeals admit that, “congress gets to be dumb,” Or hear the flamboyant Senator Ensign from Nevada say, “We should learn to disagree without being disagreeable.” Indeed, every meal was concluded with a speaker, the most controversial of which was also the oldest, shortest, and least imposing. Ms. Helen Thomas shocked the USSYP delegates who had been conditioned to expect dodged questions and vague answers. “show some outrage,” she boomed, attacking the current administration, “YOU don’t do anybody any favors when you shoot them to save them.” The week of March 1st was inevitably filled questions about or nation’s future in the Middle East, but underlying these questions was a respect for the men and women we met regardless of whether their ideologies matched our own, and, to be sure, there were so many ideologies we were left not completely sure of our own.

We were not only from every state, but every: race, creed, conviction, and social class imaginable. At dinner every night there was someone new to talk to, to exchange ideas with, or perhaps to debate. Timidity had no place this week, everyday we introduced ourselves to someone new, commonly saying, “HI, nice to meet you. So what do you think about universal health care?” Debate was far more common than small talk and it was not unusual to learn more about yourself than your opposition on any given night.

We might have taken the week to marvel at the luxury that surrounded us, or to argue our own opinions without listening to others, but one was filled with a sense of introspection, a feeling that this was a time to demand of oneself, “what do I stand for?” None of us left the week unchanged, we all viewed life with a somewhat larger scope than before, as if we’d been let in on some secret that few else would understand.

And the week did end, too soon for most of us. We left friends that, though we had known them for only a week, we felt closer to us than many of the people we see every day. We were, once again, not a part of the amazing work our government does daily, but a casual observer, learning not from the President’s Cabinet or Supreme Court Justices, but from CNN and MSNBC like millions of other Americans.

Many of these students returned to lives as class presidents, NHS members, captains of sports teams, or activists; off to the likes of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown, and Vanderbilt in the fall. But we all carry something with us, something that binds us together, the feeling that, for a week at least, we were around the most incredible group of people we have ever met.

Therefore, I would say have faith. Believe that my generation is not apathetic or uninformed; believe that there is hope for our country, and that there are students infused with a passion to move their country forward. I believe I have met future Presidents, Senators, and Justices; and they will be more than qualified to do the job. The future is uncertain, true, but I have met the leaders who will carve out of that uncertainty a place for the United States as one of the greatest countries in the world, and I feel truly honored.

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