“I’m finally here!” I thought to myself as I stood in awe on the vast marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking down across the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument. “Washington, D.C. is a real place!” It wasn’t that I’d ever doubted the existence of our nation’s capital, but I had dreamed so much of traveling there that, in my mind, it had almost become more of a fantasy than a real place. But as I finally found myself in the capital, looking around at the monuments, buildings, and landmarks, I realized that Washington, D.C. was as real and tangible a place as my own hometown. Perhaps that fact seems obvious, but the realization of it opened the whole world to my view. I suddenly recognized what I’d always known but never really grasped – the places I had read about in books and seen on the news were not simply words and pictures, but real places I could actually visit if I wanted. That knowledge awakened in me a desire to travel and see all I could of the world. This simple realization was only one of many valuable lessons I would learn during the time I spent in the nation’s capital.
This trip to D.C. that made my dream come alive was sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). For one week in the summer, USIP brought me and over forty academically gifted teenagers from across the nation to Washington, D.C. We spent the week meeting with government leaders, accomplished professionals, and other incredible people, as well as participating in a peacemaking simulation. Our experience was kept well-rounded as we also toured the city, went to a Shakespeare play, ate ethnic food, and visited the Smithsonian. Throughout the week, I learned a great deal about government, peacemaking, international relations, and different career opportunities. It was an incredible experience that gave me many valuable insights I will use throughout my life.
Of all the lessons I learned in D.C., the most important was not taught to me by a high-ranking government official, or the president of an international organization – it was taught by kids my own age. The forty plus teenagers who met in the nation’s capital that week came from all walks of life. We represented different cultures, races, religions, political views, social and economic backgrounds, and personalities. The diversity in that group was incredible and expanded my appreciation for the uniqueness of each individual. It was amazing to watch this group of over forty complete strangers from all across the country come together as friends. During the week we participated in a rigorous peacemaking simulation that required us to take on various roles and work together to reach an agreement that was satisfactory to all parties. We spent hours drafting resolutions, debating, and compromising. Our differences became assets as we each built upon our personal knowledge and experience to help the group reach a solution. There was an attitude of cooperation between us, and when we all finally voted in favor of our plan, we felt we had really accomplished something. We had come together and achieved a common goal. I came away from that week in D.C. with not only valuable insights into government and peacemaking, but also the incredible knowledge that no matter how diverse we are as human beings, we can celebrate our differences and work together as friends to solve problems and make the world a better place.
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