MERCED — When classmates ask them what they did this summer, many high school students will say they went to the beach, maybe an amusement park, or visited relatives in Bakersfield.
Three Latino high school students from Merced and Planada have a better answer. They went to Washington, D.C., and saw Congress in action as part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
Fernando Almaraz of Merced, a senior at Buhach Colony High School in Atwater, called his weeklong trip to the nation's capital an incredible opportunity. He is looking at a career in law or politics and hopes to attend Princeton University.
Cynthia Bravo-Zamora of Planada, a Le Grand High School senior, said the July 14-19 trip was encouraging and fun. She wants to become a cardiovascular surgeon and is torn between attending UCLA, University of California at Davis or UC Merced.
Marlene Lara of Planada, a junior at Le Grand High, wants to major in political science at UCLA or the University of Southern California. She hopes to become a political analyst.
The three area students, along with Manuel Rodriguez of Fresno, took part in the third annual R2L NextGen program, in partnership with the Close Up Foundation and State Farm Insurance.
Forty low-income high school students from 10 metropolitan areas across the country visited Washington to see how the federal government works, meet important leaders, visit historic sites and develop a deeper understanding of how they can affect positive change in their communities.
Fernando, 16, had a chance to speak with Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and met California's Democratic leaders Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. He said the experience was interesting and said that American government is much different and more difficult than people think.
Cynthia, 17, got to ask Costa a few questions, and saw Boxer and Feinstein. Her Washington visit has made her more interested in American government and politics.
Marlene, 16, praises the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, a top Latino youth leadership development and educational program. She said she wants to be involved in the workings of government in one way or another.
She prized her interaction with other Latino youth and the chance to meet congressional interns.
"It was an amazing experience," Marlene said. "Government functions OK, but it could do so much better."
Fernando recommends other Latino students take advantage of the program. He said he was able to make good friends with the 39 other conference participants. Students visited the Organization of American States and caught up on current events, including debates about drone strikes in the Middle East.
Cynthia said the program proved to her that if you put your mind to something, everything is possible. Her desire to become a heart surgeon was triggered when her aunt underwent heart surgery.
National support for participating students was provided by Southwest Airlines and Macy's, which provided $250 gifts card to each student. The California Endowment and Synopsis also support the leadership institute.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.