Monday, April 27, 2009

Heavy rain in recent days could not keep more than 100 students gathered from across the United States from visiting the memorials that enhance the nation’s capital. The students didn’t mind getting drenched as they toured from the World War II Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial. The guided tour was but one of the many activities of a weeklong trip organized by the Close Up Foundation.

Founded in 1971, Close Up is a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to educate and inspire young people to participate in our democracy,” the organization says on its Web site. The organization says it fulfills its mission by using Washington “as a living classroom, giving students unique access to the people, processes and places that make up our nation’s capital.”

By visiting Washington, students and teachers get the opportunity to learn about American history and politics. To date, more than 650,000 students have graduated from the program.

Before touring the monuments, students participated in a seminar on constitutional issues conducted by Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and editor-in-chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review.

Later in the day, they participated in civics-oriented workshops, which allowed them to discuss political issues. Workshop topics included federalism, the role of political parties, characteristics of a good law, the media and standards of judicial interpretation.

In the evening, students listened to a debate between a liberal - Kevin Days, adviser for higher-education special initiatives at the Corporation for National and Community Service - and a conservative - Chris Ullman, former spokesman for the White House budget office.

Program leader Scot Wilson said Close Up provides an unparalleled learning experience for students. He said he was motivated to work for the organization when he saw the zeal students had for learning more about their country and becoming active citizens. In just his third week on the job, Mr. Wilson developed a lesson plan on war-torn Darfur in western Sudan, that questioned students on what the proper U.S. role should be. He said he was amazed at the students’ desire to get involved and make a difference.

“The majority of the students began the program by not knowing anything about Darfur,” he said, “and by the end of the week they were inspired to make a difference. It was then that I knew this was an organization I wanted to continue to work for.”

Jordan Zlotoff, program instructor for the past two years, shares Mr. Wilson’s passion. He loves working with students and getting them to be more politically engaged. As they visit the memorials, he challenges the students by asking thought-provoking questions such as: “Would you be willing to ration your food supplies during a time of war to help the war effort?” or “What are some reasons a person should be exempt from being drafted?”

A believer in “civic activism as a tool to effect change,” Mr. Zlotoff enjoys seeing the transformation in the students. “Students enter the program ignorant about political processes, but by the end, they are equipped with the knowledge and tools they need to make change in their community,” he said. “This is something they just wouldn’t get at home.”

Christopher Dalebroux, 16, of Wisconsin, was excited to be part of the program. “In the small town of Kiel, you don’t get to see how government works at large,” he said. “This experience has taught me that even the smallest person can make a difference.”

Nathan Woelfel, 17, also of Wisconsin, felt the same way. “I sense how important it is to be a citizen, be educated about government and contribute to it in a positive way.”

Other students were enjoying broadening their horizons. “This is a great way to experience other places, meet new students and learn more about government,” said Lacey Strutz, 17, from South Dakota. “I would definitely do it again.”


Interested in Close Up?

The Close Up program runs every week from September to June, with a special Fourth of July program. Students who complete the program can obtain credit from the University of Virginia. Teachers who participate receive continuing-education units.

Enrollment is open to all students across the country. The registration fee for the Washington High School Program is $1,159 for the fall and $1,249 for the spring. The price includes all tours and instruction, lodging, three meals a day and access to medical care.

For more details, visit

• Loredana Vuoto is president of District-based Eloquence LLC.

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