The February after I turned 16, I got my first piece of mail. Up until then, everything that needed to get to me through the post office would be addressed to the “Ignotis Family”, often in the thin script of aunts, grandmothers and other assorted family members. This letter was typed and addressed solely to me. The envelope bore the seal of the National Youth Leadership Forum.
My mother claimed it was a scam, but a quick Google search confirmed otherwise. The National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF) is a collection of summer programs designed to introduce high school students to various career choices. This letter offered me the chance to participate in the 2018 National Security session in Washington, D.C., scheduled for early July. My father speculated that my history teacher had recommended me after I mentioned my goal to become an FBI agent.
I wish I could say that I eagerly agreed to go without hesitation. In reality, I spent days debating and struggling with the decision. Agreeing to the program meant agreeing to go to D.C. alone, surrounded by more than 250 high school students from across the country. I wouldn’t know anyone, and I was terrified that I would alienate everyone I met. When I finally did agree to go, it was only because I believed the opportunity to hear speeches from two congressmen and an FBI agent outweighed the emotional stress of eating every meal alone.
As July neared, things began to fall into place. My family decided that Washington DC would be a perfect vacation and planned to travel down the same week. This meant I wouldn’t have to worry about taking a train to DC by myself, which had been a major source of stress.
Yet, I continued to doubt my ability to connect with others. I was convinced I would spend the entire week alone. My hands shook the entire car ride down, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
When we got to the hotel where most of the program would take place, I blundered my way through checking my luggage with the help of my parents. Then, after no less than four hugs, my family left to check into their own hotel about a half an hour away.
After my parents left, I was herded into a large conference room full of other teenagers who had checked in earlier. It was clear some of them already knew each other, which only discouraged me further. I sat in the back and scrolled mindlessly through my phone, occasionally glancing anxiously at the doorway.
Once again, I wish I could say that I eventually worked up the courage to talk to someone, but I didn’t.
Instead, my anxiety was halted by two boys. They sat down next to me and started asking questions about where I was from, how old I was and what part of the program I was most excited for. Despite my initial worries, they were easy to talk to, and we quickly found common ground.
Before I knew it, I had been recruited to eat dinner with them and several other attendees who had joined our conversation. We all swapped stories about our home states and families. I was shocked at how much we all had in common. Before the end of the meal, we formed a group chat, affectionately dubbed “The Dinner Chat”, and promised to eat all of our meals together throughout the week.
I was then introduced to my roommates. I was thrilled to find out that they were both incredibly funny and smart. Despite the 5 a.m. wake up call scheduled for the next morning, we spent half of the night talking and learning more about each other. They both loved musical theater and encouraged me to listen to some songs, prompting more than a few sing-alongs.
As the week continued, things only got better. I got to hear from speakers such as Congressman Daniel Maffei and Congressman Ken Kramer. I got the opportunity to tour places like the National World War II Memorial, the US State Department, the Pentagon and the National Mall. I also got to spend time with some truly amazing individuals.
Looking back on this amazing opportunity, I can’t believe I ever even hesitated. Hearing from such renowned speakers and visiting such influential sites was life-changing. Even more life-changing were the people that I met during this conference. This experience was truly unforgettable.
I can still see the effect this event had on me to this day. Even after the conference ended, I stayed in touch with almost everyone I met. Now, I have friends from all across the country. I still talk to my roommates and remind them to break a leg in their latest auditions. “The Dinner Chat” still occasionally sends bad puns or encouraging messages. I met my best friend at this conference, who I now can’t go more than three days without speaking to.
This event also encouraged me to become more outgoing and confident. I went from being terrified of approaching new people to actually welcoming it. After all, if I can find common ground with someone from Texas, Wyoming or Hawaii, I can talk to anyone.
The truth is, I simply can’t imagine what my life would be like if I had never gotten that neatly typed letter, addressed just to me.