A Week in Washington
It’s amazing what a week in the nation’s capital can do for North Carolina teenagersBy Stacey Northup
In 2014, the weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., known as the Rural Electric Youth Tour marks its 50th anniversary of providing high school students the chance to learn about U.S. history, government and electric cooperatives. Since it started, the Youth Tour has hosted more than 1,600 high school students from North Carolina and more than 40,000 students nationally.
North Carolina's electric cooperatives send approximately 30 students annually to join peers from across the nation. Inspired by visits to historic sites like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Capitol Hill and Mount Vernon, "Youth Tourists," leave the nation's capital invigorated, determined and with a more tangible understanding of their government. Many of those sent by the North Carolina's electric cooperatives have gone on to do great things in their home state.
Where are they now?
In 1984, Four County EMC, based in Burgaw, sent Lisa Loflin on the Youth Tour. The trip gave Loflin, who currently teaches 5th-12th graders at a Davidson County home school, an appreciation for U.S. history and government. Visiting the Kennedy Center and Arlington National Cemetery were her greatest memories from the week in Washington, D.C.
Loflin appreciates that the tour continues today and that her daughter Alexandria was able to attend in 2012.
A more recent tourist has been inspired to become an educator, as well. Austin Andrews is in his first year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying to become a professor. He attended the Youth Tour in 2011 through the support of Pee Dee EMC, based in Wadesboro.
Andrews remembers meeting with North Carolina's congressional delegation. "There we were, eager and interested teenagers, in a tiny room in the U.S. Capitol and a steady stream of representatives and senators spoke with us, answering our questions."
After meeting Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, from North Carolina's 5th Congressional District, Andrews and the other North Carolina students were given a behind-the-scenes tour the next day. "We followed her up and down winding stairs and passages of the Capitol building," Andrews said. "We ended up on a presumably restricted balcony with a gorgeous view of the National Mall."
Despite being from different regions of North Carolina, students on the Youth Tour bond almost immediately. An eagerness to learn and explore is something each tourist shares. "We were a diverse mix that fused as one due to our team mentality," Andrews said.
For so many students, the highlight of the trip is forming friendships while traveling farther than ever before. In 1987, J.J. Barton, now a busy, stay-at-home mom of two, attended the Youth Tour as a member of Tideland EMC, based in Pantego. She remembers the ballet and rooftop experience at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian and the visit to Arlington Cemetery.
"The Youth Tour was so empowering for me," Barton said. "It was the first time I had traveled out of state, other than visiting family, and certainly the first time I had done so without my parents. It was my first glimpse at just how big our world is, and the first time I had seen places that I had read about for years."
Barton said that the Youth Tour not only sparked her love of traveling but that "magical week" gave her a boost in confidence that followed her to college and beyond. "These programs forever change young adults for the better," Barton said. "Many youth on the Tour may never have had the opportunity to travel before. What a gift that is."
Co-ops reach into their communities
Another student affected in the same way was Ray Starling, general counsel to the North Carolina Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, who attended the Youth Tour in 1993 as a member of South River EMC, based in Dunn. Growing up on a farm in a small town, Starling said he feels like he was the prototypical Youth Tourist.
"We have electric cooperatives because a lot of the country was moving forward while many rural parts of the country were not," Starling explained. "Getting electricity out to rural areas was to help level the playing field and give more people an opportunity to be a part of the electric revolution. That mission of bringing something to rural North Carolina is exactly what the Youth Tour is about."
Dillon Vess, like Starling, noted the impact the Youth Tour has on students from rural areas. Vess, a sophomore studying business and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill, was sent on the Youth Tour in 2010 by French Broad EMC, based in Marshall.
Vess said that the Youth Tour gave him, as a small-town mountain kid, a new confidence. "I feel that it is perfectly appropriate to speak up if an important point needs to be made or if a question needs to be asked. Classroom interaction is the keystone of learning at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Youth Tour helped prepare me to be a part of that interaction."
Learning about the business model of cooperatives solidified Vess' decision to study business and political science. Exposure to the utility industry fueled a further understanding of economics, while watching his supervisors interact with members of Congress made him curious to learn more about political science.
"The day spent on Capitol Hill was one of the many highlights of the Youth Tour," Vess said. "I remember feeling privileged, as a teenager, to ask our North Carolina representatives and senators questions about the actions they were taking to secure the United States' energy independence."
Inspired by cooperatives
The Youth Tour also sparked an interest in business for Mike Davis, the general manager of Tri-County EMC, based in Dudley. Davis was sent on the 1970 Youth Tour by Jones-Onslow EMC, based in Jacksonville. After graduating from East Carolina University, he began his career at Tri-County EMC in 1975. Davis became the general manager in 1988 after a series of promotions. Memories of the trip still remain for Davis.
"Friendships gained, breakfast with our congressmen and a boat ride down the Potomac River were highlights of the trip," Davis said.
The alumni agreed that in the past 50 years, the Youth Tour has provided opportunities and made a difference for many North Carolinians.
"Cooperatives must continue to invest in programs like the Youth Tour," Vess said, "because they help give kids in rural communities the opportunity to accelerate their education of and their curiosity for the political world. The Youth Tour exemplifies how opportunity leads to more opportunity and is often a catalyst in convincing teenagers to go to, and stick with, college."