“If you’re listening, you’re communicating.” As I look back on my experience in Washington D.C., Tara Sonenshine’s words continue to resonate with me. I entered the journey with a specific set of goals and expectations. This is how I will ask that question. These are the people who will inspire me. This is when I will discover my passion. Caught up in my anticipation of the outcome, I had been neglecting the process. But Tara Sonenshine’s words obliterated this tunnel vision and awoke me to the surrounding opportunities. Each person posses a unique set of stories, experiences, and discoveries waiting to be relayed. However, it was not until I let go of my longing for control and embraced my curiosity that I was able to fully appreciate these unique perspectives.
The importance of listening was not only relevant when preparing for the interviews, but also while we were in them. During the early interviews of the trip, I was so engrossed by my own anxieties and expectations that I was often unable to appreciate the profundity of what was being said. Overwhelmed with nerves and eager to nail my question, I allowed my own self-immersion to distract me from the true reason why I was there. It was not until I let go of my anticipation and allowed myself to be curious that I was able to see the humanity behind our country’s leadership.
Self-reflection is the final and perhaps most transformative area in which I applied the importance of listening. In the past, when given time to reflect, I had a tendency to pre-determine how I should feel. “This was a very inspiring experience, therefore I should be impacted in this specific way.” I allowed my analytical side of the brain to plan out my responses and dictate my emotions. But Tara Sonenshine’s words inspired a shift in my reflection process. I realize now that by burying my true responses beneath a mound of expectations, I lose a crucial part of my identity. I must listen to my emotions because they hold unique stories that reflect my true passions.
From the first day of the adventure I decided that I wanted to do as much as I possibly could for this trip. A big part of that was helping prepare the interviews. By far this was the most challenging part of the journey for me. Prepping for the interviews was much more complicated than I had anticipated. Not only did we have to come up with intelligent questions with the right wording, we also had to anticipate the answers and figure out how to get a certain type of response without always asking what we really wanted to know, in a direct way. Working with my fellow classmates, bouncing our ideas off each other, and offering opinions to help improve each other’s questions was an extremely enlightening experience. I learned not to be attached to the work I had done because, with the help of my classmates, it changed into something better than I had even dreamed of. Working closely with individuals I consider to be my intellectual superiors taught me that my opinions are not always the correct ones, and that by listening to other people I can learn more than I thought possible.
I had read about the people we were going to interview and I thought I had an idea of how things were going to go. However, the actual interviews were completely different than what I had anticipated. I thought that I would have a little trouble staying focused. On the contrary, I found myself paying attention and taking in everything people said.
One of the pieces of advice that I really valued was when we were told to take advantage of opportunities and to take risks. I don’t usually take risks unless I know what the outcome will be. Most of the time I would rather know what is ahead, rather than go into a situation without prior knowledge. However, I have realized that I cannot always have things like that. There are too many things in life that I will not understand. One way to take advantage of what there is to learn is to take an unfamiliar road. Like Tara Sonenshine said, “When there is a fork in the road, take it.”
Alyse Nelson inspired me because of the role she plays in the world. She helps empower women everyday and believes that, “We are not creating leaders to do good, we are creating leaders to create leaders.”
She talked about the importance of asking oneself, “What is your driving force?” This has been marinating in my mind since it was asked but I still haven’t come to a clear conclusion. I think something that drives me is seeing injustice. Knowing that I can help motivates me to make a change. The interview with Alyse Nelson inspired me to intern at Vital Voices and minor in women and gender studies.
Overall I learned that opportunities should not be passed by, ethics and values should not be compromised, and I should follow my heart no matter what. As Congressman Sam Farr said, “There isn’t anyone that doesn’t follow their heart and doesn’t end up okay.”
Washington D.C. was unlike any other place I have been. We had the opportunity to interview many different people. Most of them seemed to have the same vision for America but had different opinions on how to reach their goal. Often it seemed like they could not find common ground. I found this very interesting but also sad.
Our interview with Admiral Stephen Rochon wasn’t on the top floor of a tall office building or in a plush conference room, but it made a huge impression on us. He took the time to tell us stories, but not simple stories. His stories were filled with lessons and truths about life. When he said, “My mother told me to never tell a lie”, we understood something important about him. He told us about doing charity work every month when he was a child. That experience still influences him today. He is a man who is retiring to care for his mother. He is a moral compass in a world filled with many different norths, but he always manages to find his true north. It is inspiring to meet someone who has stayed true to his values over such a long period of time.
A majority of the passionate, high-ranking people we interviewed had no idea when they were seniors in high school where they would end up. They became successful by taking every opportunity, keeping an open mind, and not being afraid to step out of their comfort zone. For years I’ve had the same plan, go to college and get a business degree, then go to dental school. I’ve never really thought about anything else, partly because I’m afraid changing my mind and not having a plan at all. These people have taught me to not be afraid of the unknown, and that in the end I’ll end up where I belong.
The biggest thing that had an impact on me was not something that impacted me until a few days after I got back from the trip. My coach, but foremost my friend, passed away. It has been really hard. While trying to cope with the loss, I remembered what Hafsat Abiola-Costello and Congressman Sam Farr have gone through. Both of Hafsat’s parents were assassinated. Sam Farr lost both his mom and his sister. It would have been easy for them to give up and do nothing with their lives but they didn’t. They pulled themselves up and became great. Like Layli Miller-Muro, they took all that negativity and they let it ignite a fire in them.
Trevor was never one to give up. He was one of the strongest people I know. It would be easy to give up right now, but Sam Farr and Hafsat have overcome more than this. Trevor would never let me get away with wasting my life. So, I’ll turn all that negativity into a fire and I will do something great.
Before our journey, I was not aware of the impact that the trip would have on me. It seemed like a normal event in our school, like the Ramayana or the rafting trip. I almost took for granted this amazing opportunity that I was literally handed. I didn’t realize how remarkable it would be to speak with and listen to some of the important and influential people in our country. Before this trip I saw politicians as people who fought with one another to gain more power for themselves. Before this trip, I thought that most human beings in power were selfish individuals and didn’t particularly have any true intentions of helping others in need. But I definitely ended the trip with a different view of the people in power in our country.
While speaking with the representatives in our Congress, it was fascinating to see how each of them had come into that position because they wanted to make positive changes in our country. They had many different viewpoints to share, but their most common concern was that everyone that was passionate about something should do everything in their power to act on it. Each of them had seen something they wanted to change in our country, and they worked hard to make the necessary changes. None of them had it easy while finding the path to success. It was a rocky road for each of them, but they all pulled through because they “followed their hearts.”
This trip taught me that politicians are not just in it for power, but that most of them actually care. Most importantly I learned that if I follow my passions and my heart, I will end up where I want to be.
The lesson that I learned that influenced me the most is how easy it is to make a positive impact on the world. Congressman Dennis Kucinich said, “The only limits there are, are the ones that we impose on ourselves… know that you make a difference.” This is what led me to realize that I need let go of any negative thoughts about my abilities and trust any inclination to make a change. The only thing that could ever hold me back is myself. The opportunities on this trip are the foundation that will bolster my confidence to make a change, and my motivation and willpower is what will determine what positive impact my life will have on the world. -Aimee Hopkins
All of the people we had the opportunity to interview have important jobs, yet they made the time to meet with a group of high school students. When each interviewee stepped into the room, I knew why they made the time for us. They wanted to have an impact on our lives. They all shared personal stories and views on how to deal with certain obstacles. I found their advice to be helpful because it was coming from people who have seen hardships first hand, and yet are highly successful and respected people.
Beyond the advice and personal values they shared with us, they spoke about their jobs and roles in society. This part was one I expected to hear about. However I never expected to hear about them with such passion. When these influential figures told us what they do and why they do it, there was an undeniable sincerity in what they were saying. Their passion showed in their voices when they spoke about the problems they deal with and the motivation behind why they do the work they do.
In almost every interview, I felt as though the important politicians and leaders truly cared about us as future agents of change. Robert Zoellick taking an extra hour with us to hear what every single student learned on our trip. Loretta Sanchez shaking our hands. Admiral Rochon telling us how lucky he felt to be speaking with us. I was so amazed and honored that these influential leaders cared about 30 high school students from across the country. I realized that these people are human; they wanted to leave a lasting impact on us so that we would someday change the world, just as they were trying to do.
The D.C. trip is a group trip and you have to work together to succeed. I learned how my classmates work. Through their blog writings and the feedback they gave during interviews, I learned how they make sense to themselves. I think that I now have a deeper understanding of some of my classmates. One of the main values of this new knowledge is that there are aspects of the way people do things that I can take in and make part of who I am. This is part of the idea of Ubuntu. The D.C. trip was about learning something about me, through other people. I learned that if I choose to, I can personally make a difference and I feel that I have the moral imperative to do so; this goes back to Values class and really my whole life. Values are something you develop throughout your life and this year has been the first year in my life that I have really thought about what the values are that make me up. The D.C. trip was an opportunity to really think about my own value system and the implications it has on the course of my life.
One of the most important things I learned in Washington, D.C. wasn’t just that optimism exists in our nation’s heart, but that optimism leads to change. It’s optimism that gives us the motivation to keep trying through despair filled struggles. It’s optimism that guides our leaders through even the most difficult times. Tara Sonenshine pointed this out, explaining that our leaders have to be optimistic, just as a doctor in search for a cure must remain confident the cure exists in order to continue his search; it’s the barrier in the way of giving up.
Given this mindset, it is vital, now more than ever, that our generation remains optimistic that the future is not set in stone, that we can make a difference, and that we can create a brighter reality for our children. We’ve been raised with the constant reminder that it’s our duty to save our country and world from troubles. Yet we’ve also been raised to be cynical and feel hopeless about the world we live in. We cannot allow our generation to give in to hopelessness, because then we will give up, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead we must nurture hope. Somehow we must spread optimism amongst the youth of America, whilst still instilling awareness that the world still has a lot of issues. We need to create the perfect balance of promise and urgency in order to actually implement change in the world to come.
Washington D.C. opened my eyes to positivity, but it also forced me to analyze the complexity of our world. How light and darkness can exist side by side, sometimes creating each other. How accepting both is key to healing our world.
From my journey to Washington D.C., I learned there are some great leaders in our nation’s capital. My hope is that my generation will follow in their footsteps. My hope is that others can somehow discover this optimism and be energized by its pulsing magnitude, ready to make a difference. My hope is that my generation can stop complaining about the fact that we have to save the world, and instead go out there and do it.
It is difficult to put into words exactly how a journey changes you. When you return home, you don’t look any different, you don’t talk differently, and you are certainly not an entirely different person than before. For many, this brings up the question, “Why did you go?” As I try to answer this question by recounting all the lessons I learned, I seem to stumble. So much of what I try to extrapolate from our interviews sounds cliché and obvious, and means little to the people I tell it to. It is frustrating that I cannot directly share the lessons I learned in Washington with those who did not have to opportunity to go. People who have not seen that world from the inside can’t be made to understand it because so much of what I learned and experienced came not from the individual lessons that our interviewees shared with us, but from the way in which they interacted with us and each other.
Though it was never explicitly said, I began to understand how critical respect is to the success of government. We are often led to believe that politicians, legislators in particular, have very little appreciation for each other. However, Washington proved to be a place full of kind, well-meaning people. Our interview with Congressman Dreier, as well as most of our other Congressional interviews, was made possible by friendships with Congressman Sam Farr. Even in Congress, personal relations are valued and they do reach beyond party lines. It is because these men and women respect each other that they are able to overlook their differing opinions and still work together and establish positive relationships. Congressman Dreier acknowledged the conflict that is prevalent in the House of Representatives but insisted on the importance of personal relationships because they cool the tensions and restore civility to legislature. As John Laird said, “Someone who is your adversary one day may be your closest ally the next, so don’t burn the bridges between you.” Civility and mutual respect allow people in government to collaborate and establish relationships beyond like-minded peers.
It is impossible for me to fully explain the value that this journey had for me. The farther I get from it, the more the lessons I learned are reaffirmed and sometimes expanded upon. The amount of knowledge and experience we gained is still overwhelming and confusing, but I know that I can immediately apply to my life the three lessons that resonated most with me. These are the importance of respect for other people and cultures, the importance of taking risks, and the wisdom to know that failure is okay and not something to be avoided.
I saw my experience in DC in some ways as a process of learning to talk deeply with people in general, beyond learning about the specific ideas we heard. The format of the interview and the importance of the people interviewed necessitate a certain curiosity. Even the process of writing questions taught me a lot about how to work well with others, especially with those who also want to work. Tiredness and a deadline helped me be a little more efficient. The process of finding ideas and then discussing and clarifying I think helped us balance complexity and clarity, and the voice of the tired person at the end of the table allowed me to understand better when to stop.
As to inspiration and clarification of my own priorities, this trip may not have been as effective as it was for some others. In some ways, it emphasized the conflict I feel between doing things for the curiosity and aesthetic value of them and acting in terms of ethical consequences. As I mentioned earlier, even the people we interviewed, people producing consequences, didn’t seem to be unified in a belief that this considered ethical approach was necessarily the right way of thinking. I can’t say I expected to find a clear direction on this, considering the age of this issue, from the Bhagavad Gita. On closer thought, to disprove the rest of this paragraph, the need to tell people what subjects I was interested in did lead me to consider double majoring in Math and English, as more than once I found myself saying that that was what interested me. Maybe being in positions that require immediate tentative answers produces lasting ones.
Travelling to D.C. brought some of the abstract ideas I can’t help hearing about into people and into memory. It was a very intellectually stimulating 10 days and did help prove to me the work I was capable of, even just in terms of the time we spent producing interviews. Some of the trip’s specific insights – about questions, interviews, making people comfortable, group dynamics, etc. – will certainly prove to be useful. I suppose, in honor of the passion seekers, I should mention that I had a lot of fun.
There were no heroes and villains, no liberals and conservatives, no good and evil. There was just one person in front of us; sharing his personal views on the world we live in, and giving us inspiring hope for the future. Certainly there was political opinion meshed into their words. Yet, all these strong willed politicians and leaders were able to set aside their political strife in pursuit of a common goal, ensuring the success of the world’s future leaders. The mutual desire for civility and a prosperous future was evident in everyone we saw.
In spite of all the corruption, gridlock and enmity that seem to engulf Washington, it was a huge relief and enlightening experience to learn that all of its leaders had a shared desire for a better future. Another pleasant surprise I encountered on this trip is how I received the perfect mixture of idealism and practicality. It is always dismaying when I am surrounded by a totality of either one because in an environment of constant idealism, one begins to lose a hold on reality but in an environment of brutal practicality, hope slowly starts diminishing.
How do you describe an experience that for twelve days encompassed the entirety of your life? How do you tell another person about a time where you were shown dozens of new perspectives and were required to give all your energy, discipline, and focus? There are so many angles you could look at it from. I could talk about specifics, the words that were spoken that connected with me, that had meaning. I could talk about major themes, the new overarching principles that I am starting to examine. I could talk about what it took, the drooping eyes, sore back, and frustration. One thing alone cannot cover it, yet the sum of it is too much to truly communicate to another person. So I will start with a disclaimer; this is not all I learned, nor is it about my most important experiences. All it is what I could fit into a clear and succinct essay about my journey.
I truly loved the moments on this trip where a true connection was made and I understood, even for a single sentence, what that person meant and what the words meant to the speaker. I loved the moment where I would think yes or oh because it meant that I was seeing what they were seeing. Those moments are so exceptional in our everyday life, not because no one else is thinking these new thoughts, but because only rarely do we talk about them. One of these moments came when Congressman Kucinich was speaking. Everything can be said truthfully, as long as it is said lovingly. Yes. In the moment I understood that he was not simply saying that we should not lie; we know that. He was saying that everything we say should be told with the purpose of being truthful. We should not hide our ideas and aims in diplomatic words. If we say everything lovingly and respectfully the need for white lies and dancing around the issues goes out the door. I know how to say things in a way to get what I want, but I am starting to realize that that is a skill that is not a desirable skill. Another moment came while listening to Layli Miller-Muro. She said, “You are a symbol first.” She is right. Though our school and our culture prides itself on individualism, when a person first meets you, all you are is a representative of the influences that led you to meet that person, in that way. Your race, your dress, your associations are all that is seen, until the relationship deepens and the person can distinguish what really makes you, you. And that is okay. I had never thought of that. It is okay to be a symbol, it is natural, and, furthermore, if you are a symbol you have the ability to represent those associations that helped to create you. As she said, it is a powerful and healing tool. There are so many more of these moments that I could speak about; these are only a precious two.
I think time is the only thing that will ever determine the full long-term value that this trip had for me. While I hope I am able to retain much of what has been passed on, I won’t know for months or even years if I am able to remember all of the moments and themes. I cannot help believing that at least some will become integrated in my life. Already, I am trying to be more honest and more giving and the trip is influencing decisions concerning colleges and majors. I am digesting more of it every day and as it is I could write an entirely new reflection and not mention a single experience above and still have it be meaningful and representative. While I cannot say how this trip will affect my future, in this moment I can say this trip was inexpressibly meaningful and I am so grateful for this opportunity.