Two area teens recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to take part in the National Young Leaders Conference (NYLC).

Rebecca McIntire, 17, of Raymond and Jessica Harris, 15, of Windham, flew out of Portland on June 25 for the 11-day conference, which was made up of 400 students from all over the United States. While in Washington, they stayed at the Sheraton Premier Hotel, also the site of most of their sessions.

The schedule these young people followed during the conference was packed with speakers, meetings, and seminars, culminating in the Model Congress on the Fourth of July.

Even the group’s free-time activities were scheduled and included visits to the Smithsonian Museums and Arlington National Cemetery as well as a Baltimore Orioles baseball game.

Both girls said one of the best things about the conference was the opportunity to meet Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Representative Tom Allen.

“Senator Collins and Senator Snowe had to come out of meetings to talk with us,” said McIntire, “but they both came out for 10 to 15 minutes.”

The girls were also able to speak with the senators’ aides who encouraged them to apply to be interns during college.

The purpose of NYLC is to prepare high school students to serve their country, whether they choose to do so as elected officials, as active community members, or as responsible citizens. The conference employs group role-play and skill-building activities to teach diplomacy, critical thinking, and leadership skills.

During the simulation, ‘If I Were President,’ groups of about 20 students each role-played the president and cabinet members and had to respond to a fictitious international crisis.

Another activity, ‘Testing the Constitution,’ required students to examine actual Supreme Court cases.

But the conference’s main event featured the Model Congress, in which participants became U.S. representatives who debated and voted on mock legislation.

McIntire’s bill for Congress would have allowed one-time, non-violent drug offenders to apply for financial aid for college. Under current legislation, murderers are allowed to apply but drug offenders are not.

Harris’ legislation would have permitted high schools to test their student athletes for steroid use.

After debate, both McIntire and Harris’ bills passed, as did all but one of the others under consideration.

Both girls appreciated the chance to participate in the Model Congress and in the entire NYLC program.

“It gave us a sense of what it’s like to be in Congress,” said Harris. “There wasn’t a moment that I didn’t want to be there.”

“I understand a lot more about politics and about how the government works and that people work together,” said McIntire. “A lot of the decisions aren’t just one person. The president bases his decisions on what he’s told by many advisors.”

Now that the two girls are back in Maine, rested up after their hectic 18-hour days, they have the rest of the summer ahead of them. McIntire, who will be a senior at Westbrook High School, will soon begin working at Brown Photography in Westbrook. Harris, who will be a junior at Catherine McAuley High School, is currently assisting at a basketball camp at her school.

Although at this point, neither has decided on a school, both of the girls plan to attend college to become teachers. Harris, who has wanted to be a teacher ever since she was little, hopes to work with first, second, or third graders.

McIntire, who says she was inspired by her sophomore world studies teacher, Mr. Conroy, wants to be a high school history teacher.

Both girls feel the knowledge and skills they gained from the National Young Leaders Conference will be beneficial to them in their careers. They also hope the experience will look good on those college applications.

But one of the best parts of the trip for both was meeting new friends and working with students from different walks of life.

“The funnest thing about the conference,” said Harris, “was making a bunch of new friends from all over the country.”

And McIntire was impressed by the students she got to know: “Most people who attended really cared about this and about the world and want to make a difference.”

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