Editor's Note: Briarwood Academy Senior Joseph Baldwin was recently one of two students from Georgia to attend the United States Senate Youth Program. He recently shared his experience with members of the Rotary Club of Thomson.
A couple of years ago, I was searching the internet for scholarship programs and stumbled upon the Georgia Department of Education website and its scholarship section. I saw there an article titled the United States Senate Youth Program.
Briarwood Academy Senior Joseph Baldwin discusses his trip to Washington, D.C., with members of the Thomson Rotary Club.
I searched further and discovered that this program, which was founded in 1962 by Senate Resolution, offered a one-week, all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., and a $5,000 college scholarship funded by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. Well, that was all I needed to read! After finally going through all of the procedures, I was given an application for this program.
This was quite an extensive application, by the way. I've just been through the college application process, and this one was one of the worst. I had many discussion questions to answer, ranging from why I should receive this honor to even my parents' background and interests. I had to submit a complete r×ęsum×ę, a transcript, SAT scores, letters of recommendation - the whole nine yards. I also had to take a two-hour test on current events, U.S. History, and the Constitution and write three essays.
Needless to say, after that process and after discovering that only two people are picked from each state, I was slightly intimidated.
Fast-forward to October 2005. I received an e-mail from the Georgia Department of Education informing me that I had been narrowed down to one of 13 students from across the state chosen to travel to Atlanta for an interview on Nov. 5 with the Social Studies Advisory Panel of the Georgia Board of Education.
Fast-forward again to the morning of November 23. While still in my pajamas, I received a call from the Director of the Program informing me that I had been chosen for the 2006 United States Senate Youth Program. I was waiting for him to continue with "as an alternate." But he never did. Instead, he told me that I should be even more proud since no delegate to this program from Georgia had ever been chosen from outside of the Atlanta area schools.
On March 4, I found myself on a plane from Atlanta to D.C. with the other Georgia delegate. When we arrived at Reagan National, I was rather surprised not only to see a delegation of personnel there to guide us and carry our luggage, but also a security delegation that quickly ushered us to our charter bus.
My actual Washington Week was truly indescribable. To summarize 168 of the best hours of my life into just a few words, we were absolutely treated like royalty. Everywhere we went, we were greeted by the top representatives from the specific buildings or departments. Every meal we ate was formal with many courses and consisted of speeches by high-profile government representatives or delegates. We delegates traveled by three charter buses and were escorted by a security delegation of ten plain-clothes security personnel from mainly the Secret Service and 21 from the military - each nominated and awarded the honor to escort us during this program.
We toured so many amazing places that I have no idea where to even begin. Of course, we visited the Smithsonian Institution, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the other main D.C. memorials. But all our days were also packed with VIP visits to the most important buildings in Washington, D.C. We not only heard from outstanding leaders, but we also usually heard from the very top in their respective departments. After every speech, we also had the wonderful opportunity of a question-and-answer session with the esteemed speaker.
On Monday, we visited the Senate and heard from the Chief Parliamentarian. Immediately following was lunch at the Library of Congress with Ms. Emily Reynolds, Secretary of the Senate, as our speaker. We also walked to the Supreme Court and visited with and heard from newly confirmed Chief Justice John Roberts.
On Tuesday, we visited the State Department and heard from the Assistant Secretary of State, as we were informed that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could not be present because of an emergency meeting with President Bush. Immediately following, though, we were treated to a state luncheon in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room, which was actually hosted by Secretary Rice herself and her staff.
On Wednesday, we were entertained in the Dirksen Senate Office Building by Senator Trent Lott, who spoke to us as this year's co-chair of the program. We immediately walked to the Russell Senate Caucus Room, where we were hosted at a reception by the United States Senate, with around ninety-one Senators in attendance, including Senator Bill Frist, Majority Leader, and Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. We were given the opportunity to mingle with them and ask - once again - many, many questions!
Thursday was packed - with speeches from the U.S. Surgeon General, Senator Mitch McConnell, Senator Harry Reid, Minority Leader, and His Excellency Jehangir Karamat, Ambassador of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to the United States. However, the highlight of Thursday was our morning trip to the White House and our meeting with President Bush. This was quite an experience, not only because we got a closed tour of the White House, but also because we got to watch the security detail in action. We met President Bush on the North Portico, and before he emerged from the doors - where I got the first and last handshakes, by the way - the Secret Service was having a fit over an opened window across the street. They finally got it closed with a mere cell phone call, and after the two streets facing the White House were blocked and about twenty men with Uzis surrounded us, President Bush finally emerged. He spoke to us for about 10 minutes. Besides ironically telling us the importance of conviction, he actually repeated to us the same thing we had heard from about every other speaker that week: that he needed to stop what he was doing and travel with us, as he cannot seem to get an appointment with some of the people we were having the privilege to meet!
Friday, the last full day in D.C., we 100 delegates toured the Pentagon and heard from General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Also on Friday night, I had the privilege of introducing the closing speaker - who was one of us delegates - as I had nominated her for this honor. The staff had also heard I was a classical singer and had arranged for me to sing the national anthem at the closing ceremony, but the program director had to nix that, as the United States Army Band was already performing and was including that song on its program. That night, however, after the dance, about 40 of us had gathered in one of the hotel rooms for a party. We were supposed to be in bed, as this was around 2:30 in the morning. As I went to leave the room for the night, somebody spoke up and said that they had not gotten to hear me sing yet. So they finally convinced me to sing, and at 2:30 that morning at Washington's Second Best Address, I performed the national anthem for 40 other delegates in a tiny hotel room.
To now sum up this phenomenal experience, I had the time of my life. I made so many wonderful contacts, most of whom plan to attend the nation's top universities. But more importantly, I made life-long friends. Yes, it was hard to come home to Briarwood, but I came back empowered with incredible knowledge, experience, and the will to endeavor to change this country back to one whose politics has principle.