Reflections from one of two students chosen to represent Pennsylvania at NRA's Y.E.S. conference this summer
Victoria Lee Hrach, a orthopedic surgeon hopeful on her way to St. Vincent College, shares her experience at the Pennsylvania Y.E.S. conference, a precursor to NRA's National Youth Education Summit in Washington, DC.
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania -
This April, I had the chance to participate in the NRA’s 2014 Pennsylvania Youth Education Summit. It was truly an amazing experience for me, and opened up so many new opportunities that I would not have otherwise had.
First of all, much of the weekend’s focus was placed on public speaking and debating, skills that we all learned would prove vital as we continue to grow in our roles as responsible citizens and members of our communities. I was able to significantly improve my presentation skills, and I became more confident as I spoke in front of others.
I had the wonderful opportunity to work with other students like myself as we prepared for our team debates. Together, we researched, put together thoughts, and refined our notes to create the final arguments that we put forth in each of our presentations. For each of the three topics, we were only given a limited amount of time to collaborate before the actual debates began, so it was crucial for us all to work hard, to work efficiently, and, most of all, to work together.
Our debate topics were: “gun-free zones,” soda/pop being sold in schools, and how the Constitution should be interpreted. We were divided into two teams for each debate, and at times, some of us did not agree with the side of the issue that we were assigned. However, we learned to analyze the issue from both sides, as we compiled our own arguments and identified the points that the opposing team might make.
But it was not only in the debates and debate preparation that I was able to become closer to my fellow Y.E.S. students. I grew to know each of them on a personal level, as I found that we had shared interests and values. At Y.E.S., I made some of the best friends that I have now.
We arrived at the hotel conference room on Thursday evening, with most of us knowing nothing about the other students, aside from a few exceptions, such as a few fellow competitive shooters, and I and two other 2013 Pennsylvania Y.E.S. attendees (affectionately deemed the “Repeat Offenders”). However, I think that all of us were able to become closer to each other; even those of us who already knew each other learned more about each other through the events and discussions of the week. And, by Monday afternoon, as we departed from the hotel, all of us were friends, exchanging contact information, hugs, and congratulations.
The chaperones presented us with team-building activities for us to participate in, including tying rope and tightening a knot as a team. That knot came to serve as a physical and a figurative representation of the bond that formed between us. Having been selected as “keeper of the knot,” I found myself volunteering time and time again to explain its meaning to my peers and to the guests that we met at Y.E.S. One boy, Elias, so eloquently referred to us all as “comrades of the knot.” That was exactly what we were. The knot was our symbol; it was what brought us together and represented the relationship between all of us.
Additionally, the chaperones at Pennsylvania Y.E.S. taught us about etiquette and respect towards others and their unique views. We learned to work with others and recognize various personality types, and strengths and weaknesses – which helped us to work cohesively and effectively in our debate teams. We engaged in discussions about leadership and what distinguishes a person as a leader, and one of the chaperones, Mr. Miko, explained to us the difference between an “authority figure” and a true leader.
Over the course of the five days, we traveled to amazing places and gained beautiful experiences and memories. After an NRA-U presentation in the morning, we took a bus ride to Palmyra Sportsman’s Association, where we practiced our archery skills, shot targets with .22 rifles and pistols, and participated in trap shooting.
Some members of the Y.E.S. program had little or no experience with firearms; others had used a variety of firearms or were competitive shooters. But what truly amazed me was the enthusiasm we all shared about building on our marksmanship skills and enjoying the sportsman’s club trip with our peers. Before we even left Palmyra, everyone had already begun to exchange their interesting shooting tales – from their favorite firearm or bow, to a new skill they had learned, to the story of one boy remarkably breaking a clay pigeon with the wad of a shotgun shell!
On Saturday, we traveled to Gettysburg and were taught about the battle there by Mr. Anthony Nicastro, our very knowledgeable tour guide. He explained different aspects of the events at Gettysburg to us, tackling the battle from a historical and a leadership perspective. We then took turns explaining what we would have done if we had been in the position of the Union or the Confederate men. Some of us had the chance to “fire” a cannon, mimicking going through all the necessary steps that the Civil War soldiers had needed to take.
On Sunday evening, we had a formal banquet, and Representative Kerry Benninghoff visited us. Rep. Benninghoff not only answered our questions about his career, but also provided us with advice as to how we could all make a difference in our communities and in the world, as the “next generation.”
Monday morning and early afternoon consisted of a trip to the Capitol in Harrisburg. We took a tour, took photographs, and all marveled at the beautiful and historic buildings. Along with the other Y.E.S. participants, I had the chance to ask questions to Senator Alloway and Senator Lawrence. After they departed, we had a group conversation on leadership, and some of us gave our opinions on which of our peers stood out as leaders, and in which ways they each demonstrated leadership qualities.
We ate together in the Capitol cafeteria, sharing memories, discussions, and the joy of our new friendships – before we returned to the hotel. As the chaperones left the conference room there to decide which of us would travel to the National Y.E.S. program in Washington, DC in late June, we took on the task of writing thank-you cards to those who made our week and our great experiences possible.
The environment at Y.E.S. was professional and respectful, but all the while upbeat and friendly. One moment, we were joking as one girl forgot to sidestep and was “hit” by the Gettysburg cannon; the next, listening intently to our guide’s very insightful explanation of leadership. One moment, another “Repeat Offender” and I were enthusiastically discussing Magpul, rifles, and Glock pistols; the next, working together to compose thoughtful thank-you letters for two of the individuals who contributed to the Y.E.S. program.
Ultimately, Pennsylvania Y.E.S. was a competition, in a way, as we all knew that two students would be selected to attend the national summit in the summer. But state Y.E.S. did not feel like a competition. We all did our best in the debates and discussions, but the relationships between us were those of friends, not competitors. Our weekend concluded with everyone congratulating each other, regardless of whether they had been chosen for nationals or not. We all had watched each other excel over the course of the program, and a strong feeling of camaraderie had formed by Monday afternoon.
To the other students from all around the country who have been selected to participate in the 2014 National Youth Education Summit this summer, I look forward to sharing this experience with you. I would also like to extend my greatest congratulations to Evan English, my friend and fellow participant for our state at the National Y.E.S. program this summer!
To any students considering Y.E.S., I highly encourage you to apply for your state summit, or directly to the national program, depending on your state of residence. You do not have to want a career in politics in order to participate in Y.E.S.; you need only have a commitment to responsible citizenship in accordance with your personal beliefs. Anyone interested in public speaking, political activism, and government should apply to the Youth Education Summit.
To the students who have already attended Y.E.S. but will be eligible a second year, I hope that you will take the initiative to reapply. I was involved with the Pennsylvania program for two years, but each summit presented me with unique experiences and friends, and different opportunities in the areas of speaking and debating.
My weekend at Pennsylvania Y.E.S. was absolutely remarkable, filled with unrivaled fun, friendships, and learning opportunities. It is difficult for me to fully capture in words all of the emotions and memories that I think of when I reflect on my Y.E.S. experience, but I hope that I can inspire others to apply for the Youth Education Summit so that they, too, can have the chance to participate in this amazing program.
I would like to give my greatest thanks to the volunteer chaperones responsible for facilitating the Pennsylvania Y.E.S. program this year, to NRA Field Representative Kory Enck, and to the many Friends of NRA volunteers and contributors who made this program possible for me and my fellow PA Y.E.S. 2014 participants. I am so grateful for having been offered this outstanding opportunity, and I am truly honored to be representing Pennsylvania at the national Youth Education Summit this summer.