Students Speak Out During Washington Week

Student delegates Olivia Castor and Owen Lyons at Washington Week USSYP Student Activities Director Steve Cox conferring with student Farewell Speakers Owen Lyons and Olivia Castor

This month’s blog post features leaders among leaders: profiles of the two student delegates who were chosen by the group to serve as the Farewell Speakers on the final evening of Washington Week 2013. A program tradition, each year the students create their own nominating and auditioning process to self-select the one male and one female delegate who will give reflections on the week. Poetry, music, spot-on impersonations of the President of the United States and rap have all been offered in addition to lofty oratory to entertain, delight and inspire the group. Public speaking is an integral part of the Washington Week experience as delegates from a speaker’s home state are asked to provide introductory and appreciation remarks during the events. With an average of twenty leaders speaking each program week, almost half of the delegates get the opportunity to formally address the group, in addition to the lengthy question and answer sessions that take place at each event. The students can thus hone their public speaking skills at the same podiums and in the same magnificent venues as the leaders whom they aspire to emulate one day.

Interview with Owen Lyons of Vermont:

Owen Lyons speaks at Washington Week

If you could attend Washington Week again in 2014, what would you be most excited for?

Without a doubt, I would be most excited to meet the other delegates.

 Why did you apply to USSYP?

It’s difficult to pass up a chance to win a $5,000 scholarship and get to hear some of the most important leaders in the U.S. government speak, all while staying in an extremely nice hotel and getting a tour of our nation’s capital. Also, I knew it would make my school proud if one of its students were accepted as a delegate.

Where are you attending college and what will you pursue in college (if decided)?

I’ll be going to Boston College to study economics.

What message would you give to high schoolers considering applying for USSYP vs. other scholarship programs?

I didn’t apply for any other scholarship programs, so it’s difficult for me to compare. But I can’t imagine another program that combines such an incredible variety of students with an unforgettable week. It’s not about the scholarship award we receive; it’s about what we can learn from the experience. I think that’s a good thing.

What were your top three highlights of Washington Week?

Dinner in the rotunda of the National Archives was easily my favorite. Not only was the food incredible, but the speaker, Senator Richard Burr, gave one of the most insightful speeches of the week, talking about the role of American government and the values essential to a productive society. Not to mention, we were sitting 100 feet away from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.    

This may sound strange, but one of my highlights was sitting back and watching the slide show of the week at the last dinner. After such a ridiculously exciting week in which we never really stopped moving, talking, or listening, it was a very cool feeling being able to finally kick back and reflect, as well as spend one more night with our fellow delegates.

Arlington National Cemetery justifies everything we learn throughout the week – it’s fitting that it comes on the last day. The fact that so many people would sacrifice their lives for our nation confirms the importance of the speakers we met and their ideas. It wasn’t just a tourist attraction for us – it was a reminder that we have the responsibility to ensure that our soldiers have not died in vain. It provided the perfect perspective with which to view our week.

Are there any words of advice or comments that keep ringing in your ears from a speaker you heard while at Washington Week?

Maybe it’s just because he’s the President of the United States, but I remember most what Barack Obama said to us in the White House: “Focus on what you want to do, not who you want to be.” This advice has guided many of my decisions since, as I grow as a person and attempt to discover who I am, as cheesy as that sounds. Life is too unpredictable to dictate exactly who we want to be.

What activities were most meaningful to you during high school?

I will most remember playing sports and doing theater, two very different activities that shaped most of my high school career. Sports created a demanding physical environment which forced me to challenge myself and work within a team, while theater allowed me to focus on individual performance and commitment to minute details. Also, the difference and variety between the two groups made my social interactions around school much better.

 If anything, what aspect(s) of USSYP will shape your next four years of college?

It was certainly a humbling experience. The intellect and passion of the other delegates made me realize that I need to maximize my abilities to best serve this nation, because there are many other students doing the exact same thing. Plus, I now have many great connections (and friends) from around the country who I can talk to about most any subject, and I have been inspired to learn more and read more so I can participate in great discussions.

Interview with Olivia Castor of New York:

Olivia Castor speaks at Washington WeekWhere are you going to college and what is your intended major?

I will attend Harvard College and I want to major in International Relations and Affairs, and possibly do a concentration in Conflict Resolution or African Studies.

If you could attend Washington Week again in 2014, what would you be most excited for?

The people! Whether it was the delegates, the Military Mentors, the alumni or the speakers, I met such interesting and accomplished people.

The delegates broadened my political and social awareness; they have interests in so many areas I am interested in. It made me realize that there are other students out there who share your passion for politics and social issues. I still talk to my friends from USSYP all the time. Also, I got business cards from past alumni I met on the first night and I keep those too, as they are willing to help guide and advise us in the future.

Why did you apply to USSYP?

I have always been a bit of a history nerd, so this seemed like the perfect scholarship program. I would have the chance to spend a week with 100 other students exploring D.C. You see pictures in a textbook, but this is living it.  You dream about this type of experience. It is so much more than just a scholarship. It also helped me solidify my decision for my major in college.

What message would you give to high schoolers considering applying for USSYP this year or in the future?

A special aspect of USSYP is that it’s an entire week, whereas other leadership scholarship programs are shorter – often only a weekend program. You spend the whole week in D.C., and from breakfast to dinner you have a packed schedule of speakers, whereas with others you may have one or two guest speakers. It’s not just about the scholarship; USSYP is about making sure you experience something.

You have access that is unheard of, like visiting the White House and Supreme Court. I won a another leadership scholarship, and had the chance to see a few museums as part of that, but for USSYP you are in the Capitol meeting with your Senators and in the Supreme Court meeting with Justice Kagan. And lastly, the food was amazing.

Also, the reputation of USSYP is enormous. It’s extremely competitive to get into, so if you have it on your resume, it will impress people.

What were your top three highlights of Washington Week?

The Senate Reception – getting to stand in the Capitol and meet my two senators, Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen.  Kirsten Gillibrand, and speaking with their interns who answered our questions and took an interest in us.

Another highlight was meeting Justice Kagan. She spoke for over an hour in the Supreme Court chamber and said, “Ask me anything!” Even though it’s the Supreme Court and she is a Supreme Court Justice, she was such a normal, down-to-earth person. I found her stories enlightening.

And of course, an incredible highlight was meeting the President. I was in the front row and could feel the presence of greatness. People were gasping and crying. He was standing three feet away.  Not a lot of people can say that they have experienced that. It was so inspiring.

Are there any words of advice or comments that keep ringing in your ears from a speaker you heard while at Washington Week?

The President said “Not everyone can be great and become a famous politician or movie star, but everyone has their place and you should find it and occupy it and fulfill it 100%.” He also reminded us that we should not lose sight of our goals and morals as we grow up.

Another comment was by Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who said to make sure you give back, and spoke about his mission trip to Haiti and how much it meant to him. The whole idea of giving back hit me 100%.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said “Make sure you study hard, have a strong academic background, and find something you are passionate about.” He also said “Regardless of race, gender and background there is nothing you can’t do.”

I wrote down so many quotes over the course of the week. The speakers are in positions we dream of occupying one day. They took the time to offer their advice. They told us the importance of studying hard and not letting anyone tell you what you can or can’t do. They are living examples of their advice, fulfilling the most prestigious roles in public service.

What activities were most meaningful to you during high school?

Model UN and Debate Club. Even on the USSYP bus rides, where you have all of these students from across the U.S. and have different political opinions, there would be lively ad-hoc debates. It’s not every day you come across someone who has strong, informed opinions and the debates we had on those buses were so interesting to me. It was important to have debate experience and know how to prove points and argue my position. This has made me want to join the International Relations Council at Harvard to continue having these types of discussions.

If anything, what aspect(s) of USSYP will shape your next four years of college?

USSYP taught me that I should keep an open mind. There are broader horizons, don’t make firm decisions. I learned that it’s ok to not know if I want to be an Independent, Republican or Democrat. It’s ok to not fully understand how I feel about gay rights or abortion because there are so many sides to the issues and I learned so many more ways of looking at them.

Would you want to do an internship in D.C. during college?

Definitely! I was deciding between Georgetown and Harvard and one of the benefits of attending Georgetown was the ability to do an internship in D.C. I still want to do an internship during one of my summers. I would also like to do something abroad in an embassy if I could. USSYP solidified that decision for me.