BOUNTIFUL – Going to Washington D.C. as a newly elected senator is not something every high school student gets to do.
But two Viewmont High students did just that, though their campaigns lasted days instead of months and their service in the nation’s capital lasted a week instead of six years.
At last June’s Girls’ State held at Weber State University, McKinley Carr was elected from a group of 350 participants to represent Utah at Girls’ Nation in July.
During WSU’s Boys’ State, James Clift earned the same honor.
It took essays, interviews, debating and campaigning to win the spot, but the American Legion Auxiliary events are held to introduce students to the world of politics and government, and that experience was the start.
That two students from the same high school represented the state was unusual.
James, at 15, was also the youngest ever to attend Boys’ Nation.
Once in D.C., they and 97 other girls and 97 other boys representing all states except Hawaii wrote bills and tried to get them through committees to the floor for a vote, just as senators do.
They also visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. Capitol, Arlington Cemetery and the White House, where President Barack Obama spoke to them.
“He was very genuine,” said McKinley. “Even if I don’t agree with everything he does politically, I respect him so much for what he does for the country ... for his sacrifice.”
The youth senators also met with Utah’s “other” senators, Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch.
“He told us to stay involved and to believe in something,” said McKinley of their visit with Hatch.
During a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, McKinley was touched by a conversation with a wounded veteran from Idaho.
“They have given up who knows how much for a cause,” she said. “That whole week, I learned how our government helps the people and how our military helps the people. We are so fortunate to live in the place we do.
“I wish every young girl in America could do that,” she said of Girls’ Nation. “I learned more life lessons in one week than in my entire life.”
McKinley said the week made her “super patriotic,” and because she has “huge passion for people in general,” she loved getting to know people from a variety of religions and from different parts of the country.
For James as well, a highlight of Boys’ Nation was the diversity of the people he met.
“Everybody has a different background, everybody has a different point of view of everything,” he said. “You have to be respectiful of anybody no matter what.
“Part of that respect is you shouldn’t just assume that everybody’s on the same page as you,” he said.
James was impressed during his visit to the U.S. Capitol by the comraderie between senators.
“Even though a lot of senators are different politically, they get along well in real life,” he said. “They just don’t get along on the floor.
“It was really eye opening to see the level of professionalism,” he said. “Maybe they hate each others’ ideology, but they’re professional and some of them are friends.”
His fellow participants at Boys’ Nation also impressed him, he said, when they articulated their views and compromised when necessary.
“You can’t always have exactly what you want,” he said. “While everybody held strongly to their respective views, they listened respectfully to to every senator’s opinions and arguments before interjecting with counter arguments.”
It’s important not to be disrespectful even if you’re trying to prove a point, he said.
“Wherever possible, it’s better to get something that’s half-way good done than nothing,” he said.
James was also impressed by the memorials to the fallen, specifically the Iwo Jima Memorial.
“It’s really interesting to see all the work the federal government puts into respect for the fallen,” he said.
The mass of graves at Arlington Cemetery touched McKinley and helped her recognize “the sacrifices that were made for me.”
“The government is so, so vital to help people live happy lives,” she said.
“The biggest thing I learned is how important it is for all of us to understand the world we live in,” said McKinley. “This program made me so much more patriotic and so much more grateful for this beautiful country and the people who fight for our freedoms.
“We need to be aware of other people and how they feel and then we can do amazing things and break so many different barriers that have been up for centuries,” she said.