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On January 15, 2013 I first heard about the National Rifle Association's Youth Education Summit program, in an NRA member e-mail sent out to me. Y.E.S. offered scholarships, debates and tours in Washington, DC-so I decided to look further into the application process.
I applied to the Pennsylvania Youth Education Summit in spring 2013, my sophomore year of high school, and was excited to be accepted into the program. That April, I stayed in Harrisburg, Pa., where I became caught up in all of the learning experiences of our activities and trips. I left the 2013 Pennsylvania Y.E.S. program with gained skills, new friends and a smile on my face.
Leading up to spring 2014, I checked the Friends of NRA website almost daily, constantly searching to see if the 2014 Pennsylvania Y.E.S. application had been posted yet. When it was available, I eagerly reapplied and was selected to attend the summit for a second year. I worked my hardest, strove to do my best, and was rewarded with being selected as first-place winner-and one of two students who would have the chance to attend the national Summit in late June.
I knew the principles on which the Pennsylvania Y.E.S. program had been based: liberty, responsible citizenship and leadership-but I was unsure of what to expect at the National Y.E.S. I arrived at the destination hotel on Monday of that week, wearing my green Y.E.S. T-shirt, my arms loaded with suitcases and bags.
Our Y.E.S. week began with "icebreakers," which the majority of the evening consisted of. With new students sporadically arriving, it was difficult at first to memorize both everyone's name and state of residence, but by the end of the evening, we had already come to know each other much better. We connected on a personal level through introductory games, where we learned new facts about each other and came to bond over some similar interests and experiences. We laughed and joked together, already beginning to form friendships. After we discussed orientation and broke into our preassigned debate groups briefly, we headed up to our hotel rooms, eager for our first full day at the Youth Education Summit.
The next morning, we woke up and ate breakfast together, sharing our enthusiasm for the day to come-and our expectations were not let down! After several engaging discussions with speakers from programs such as Refuse To Be A Victim and the Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program, we attended a mock Friends of NRA banquet put on by the Y.E.S. chaperons, complete with games and prizes.
One of the chaperons, Ms. McMahon, pulled me aside at lunch. I followed her into the lobby of NRA headquarters, unaware of why I had been taken out of the café-until it was explained to me that I had been chosen for an interview for the NRA News television show Cam & Co. I was thrilled about this perfect chance to represent my fellow Youth Education Summit attendees and to share my thoughts with viewers. Participating in the interview truly made me come to a greater realization of how much of a difference I can make, and motivate others to make. It was really rewarding for me to express my thoughts about my experiences thus far, and what had inspired me to join the Y.E.S. program myself. I returned to lunch reflecting on all the learning opportunities during our week that would lie ahead.
Following our mock banquet, we visited the NRA Firearms Museum and immersed ourselves in all that it had to offer, in all of the history, art and culture that the exhibits there represented. I was impressed by the variety of firearms, from old Gatling guns to modern rifles from recent movies. My fellow Y.E.S. participants and I shared our favorites and our enthusiasm about our firearm interests.
After that, we ventured down into the NRA Range, all awaiting the opportunity to try out some firearms for ourselves! New shooters quickly learned and came to enjoy our time at the range, and experienced shooters were excited to use unique firearms such as .22-cal. M1911s, revolvers, AR-15 rifles, and more. Our adventures continued with an intriguing historical discussion at Manassas Battlefield, complete with a tour of the fields and a discussion of "Stonewall Jackson" and his leadership. The evening concluded with a second short debate preparation session, before our dismissal.
The following day, we traveled to Hillsdale College in Washington, DC for our debates. Our group was split into four debates, each with a con and a pro side, for a total of eight teams. Even the teams that were assigned sides that were difficult to argue still did exceptionally well, and whether new or experienced in debating, each participant truly brought a unique speaking style and interesting points to their presentation. After our debates, we traveled upstairs and watched Marco Rubio speak, proposing ideas for immigration and education reform.
We then traveled to the National Archives and were able to see many of the documents that govern our country, dating back to the original Declaration of Independence! The Bill of Rights was also there, and I re-read the Second Amendment quite a few times. It was amazing to see where our rights had been declared, where they were physically guaranteed to be protected for us.
After stopping outside the White House, our evening was full of travels to different memorials, and everyone had their own favorite. Visiting each monument was truly touching; seeing great American figures like Jefferson and Lincoln gave me a sense of pride for our country, and seeing the war memorials made me realize the brave sacrifices that so many Americans made to preserve our rights and our freedom. It was an emotional experience to walk deeper and deeper into the Vietnam Memorial as I ran my fingers along the names carved into the black stone.
On Thursday, we had the opportunity to tour the Capitol building. Inside, we saw historical relics, pictures and even some neat dioramas of how the Capitol's layout had changed over the years. The other participants and I watched a short documentary shown at the Capitol, explaining the history and significance of all that had occurred there over the years.
After our general tour, we went to visit the Supreme Court. Our tour guide explained the roles and backgrounds of the individuals involved in every aspect of the judicial process, and connected the relevance of the wall frieze artwork to the duties and values of the Supreme Court. We then went to the Smithsonian for a scavenger hunt, evaluated on the quality of our responses to the questions we were assigned. Team Daisy-my team-searched through the museum for the answers, writing down our responses as we went. Later on, it was announced that Daisy had won, and the chaperones kindly gave us Star-Spangled Banner glasses from the museum gift shop as prizes.
Back at the hotel, we remained in our assigned teams for discussions that the chaperones referred to as "seminars." In our seminars, there were three main topics, each with six subtopics, one assigned to each of the teams. The seminars were different from the debates; we mainly shared our factual findings and individual feelings, rather than having to argue a certain side as in the debates from the previous day. It was interesting to see what everyone had found about their topics-as in the case of one boy, Brad, with his enormous "Binder of Infinite Knowledge"-and also to hear how everyone felt about controversial issues, such as the mandatory firearm ownership imposed in Switzerland.
We woke bright and early on Friday morning, and ran through the parking lot. As the chaperons tried to give us a taste of Marine training, they put us through drills like jumping jacks, push-ups and other endurance activities. By the time the chaperons allowed us on the bus, we had already done so much as a precursor to the experiences that we would later have that day at an actual Marine base.
At Marine Corps Base Quantico, we headed to different simulators and were broken into groups. Four of those groups, including mine, first headed to the Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer, or VCCT. The VCCT was a Humvee inside of a tent, with the walls all around it showing images of the simulation "surroundings" of Iraq. We had a driver, a radio communicator, one person each on the .50-cal. turret and M249, and two using M16s (myself being one of these two).
The simulation started out with our convoy of four vehicles driving through the desert, through a small town. We all noticed a man talking on his cell phone suspiciously, but our Rules of Engagement were not to fire unless fired upon. Predictably, though, we were attacked by men on foot just minutes later. We flipped off our safeties and began firing as we covered ourselves and the three other Humvees in our convoy. In the middle of all this, we received a message from Command reporting that a massive number of jets and enemy vehicles were headed towards us. We fended our attackers off and dodged incoming jets even as two of the other three vehicles in the convoy were taken out. Finally, our Humvee was destroyed as a jet crashed into us; seconds later, we heard that the very last vehicle had been obliterated as well.
The simulation had been fun, but it had also given us an idea of what Marine training was like. Additionally, it had brought us closer together as a team, and made me realize how lucky I was to be around such phenomenal people. Our driver had been skilled in evading the many enemy vehicles; our M249 gunner had managed to resolve an issue with his "weapon" while keeping calm and focused; our communications officer had made sure we stuck with our convoy even in the heat of battle; and the other shooters had greatly helped us to protect ourselves and succeed.
All of us emerged out into the sunlight of the base, grinning with excitement about what we had experienced. We shared our stories of what had occurred, and who had taken what role, as we headed to another simulator, this one involving the simulated shooting of M16s. Three at a time, participants went up to try this simulator. The scenarios varied: some involving intense battle, others with only one or two shots fired; some in close quarters, others at long distance; some focusing on combat, others on the discretion of the shooter.
As our bus traveled through Quantico, Staff Sgt. Lima answered our questions about the Marine Corps and Officer Candidate School. We then headed to the National Museum of the Marine Corps; stopping here deepened my appreciation for Marine history and all that Marines have done to safeguard our American freedom. My fellow Y.E.S. participants and I left talking about how we would always support the Marine Corps and the brave men and women therein.
At the Iwo Jima Memorial, the chaperones passed out MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) for dinner. The others and I sat on the steps and ate our dinner, helping each other figure out how to prepare our food.
That evening, we traveled to watch the Marine Corps 8th & I Parade. A few other Y.E.S. students and myself had the ability to watch from the first row of seating, with our feet on the famous "million dollar lawn." Our excitement only escalated when we discovered that the President would also be attending. As the afternoon turned into the evening and the sky became darker, the parade began. The Marines played music, marched across the lawn, and performed their amazingly precise silent rifle drills. By the end of the parade, we had experienced a day full of activities, and we returned to the bus together.
But the night did not end there. A handful of the participants wanted to give speeches about their experiences at the National Youth Education Summit, as the next day would be the final full day of activities. I stood at the front of the bus and spoke over the microphone about my personal thoughts on what we all had gone through, not quite believing that it had only been four days since we had first met!
On Saturday morning, we traveled to Arlington National Cemetery-another reminder of the sacrifices made to protect our freedoms. Four students were given the chance to lay a flower wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier there, in respect for the unidentified soldiers who had given their lives for the United States.
After our visit to Arlington, we went to the Newseum in the Capitol, where we learned about the history of journalism through a 4-D movie and the exhibits all through the building. Some of my friends and I stopped at the newsroom sets there, posing as reporters; a fellow participant had fun pretending to report that he was searching for our bus driver, Mr. Chang.
We returned to the hotel, bidding our goodbyes to the well-loved aforementioned bus driver, before heading to the evening banquet. NRA President Jim Porter attended our Youth Education Summit banquet and spoke about his thoughts on the program, and how we can take our Y.E.S. experiences as inspiration to make a difference in our communities and in the world. I wholeheartedly agreed with his sentiments and with the mission of the National Rifle Association.
The chaperons then announced the winners of different awards and scholarships, based on participation throughout the week. I was truly honored to be awarded one of the scholarships and to have had the opportunity to represent the National Rifle Association. Similar to the previous night, some students were able to give speeches. In mine, I thanked everyone for the wonderful experience that they had all helped me to have. I expressed my pride to have had the ability to participate in the Youth Education Summit and to have had the chance to get to know so many like-minded peers.
After changing into casual clothes, we passed around yearbooks. As I signed everyone's, I reflected on how close I had grown to each of them. After yearbook signing, someone decided to play music, and we danced together to conclude our final night at the Youth Education Summit.
As many students had flights departing very early in the morning, it was the last chance we would have to all be together. We exchanged hugs and goodbyes, hoping that our friendships would remain strong as we departed from the Y.E.S. program and carried our newly forged bonds into the future.
I left the following morning with new knowledge about American government and the ways that I can be involved in it. I have always possessed a fervent devotion to our liberty and the Second Amendment, but seeing the documents where it was originally written displayed in the National Archives was a truly breathtaking experience. It was difficult to believe that I had only spent a week with my friends at Y.E.S., yet we had come to know each other on such a deep and strong basis.
I am thankful to all of the Friends of NRA contributors and chaperons that funded and assisted with my National Y.E.S. experience, and thankful also to the friends who helped to make my week so fantastic. I am certain that I will strive to take the lessons I learned at the Youth Education Summit into my activities in the coming weeks, months, and years-just as President Porter advised me. I am so grateful to have been able to take this amazing trip to Fairfax, Va. and Washington, DC; and I know that the memories and friends I made there will last a lifetime.
Editor's Note: For more photos of the Youth Education Summit, click here.