By DAVID GREEN
Four days after the conference had ended, Nathan Grieder and Leslie Kazmierzak were still thinking about their week at Hillsdale College. It completely dominated their thoughts. Their friends were growing weary of the tales.
The two were nominated by Morenci teacher Deb Hojnacki to attend the Civitan Youth Leadership and Diversity Conference at Hillsdale College. They agreed to go, but their early assessment wasn’t too encouraging.
“I remember you saying that it was going to be boring,” Leslie said to Nate last week, “and I agreed. It seemed like a lot of people who wanted to be leaders.”
And then something happened, something that turned what looked like a long, tedious week into a life-changing experience.
It was an amazing time, Leslie said, but still, it’s something that’s difficult to put into words.
But for anyone willing to listen, they’ll try to explain themselves.
More than four dozen high school students converged at Hillsdale College, some coming from as far away as Texas and a large contingent from Canada.
The week kicked off with a guest speaker who challenged the students to think about what they want to do to change the world. Any little effort can make a difference, they were told. Simply pick a path and go with it.
Then came a series of team-building exercises and small group discussions, with constantly changing membership that allowed everybody to become familiar with most everyone else.
The first day, the Canadians tended to hang out together, the Indiana delegates stayed together, etc. After that, everyone started to mix and by the end of the week, no lines existed. It wasn’t always an easy path to take.
“Everything you did pushed you out of your regular comfort zone,” Nate said.
One exercise split delegates into pairs. No. 1 would read a question and No. 2 would respond by talking about themselves. No. 1 remained silent, a constant listener.
Then the discussions began—very deep discussions—that addressed anything and everything, Nate said. Religion, gay marriage and gay rights, addiction, premarital sex, voting and the drinking age, global warming, and on and on.
“We learned to attack the idea, not the person,” said Nate, who will be a senior at Morenci Area High School. “No concept is wrong.”
Everyone at the conference has a different background and opinions vary. The conference isn’t designed to change opinions and beliefs, but to solidify a person’s idea.
“A lot of things I didn’t have a strong opinion on,” Nate said, “but when I walked out, I knew exactly where I stood.”
In the Global Village exercise, the world population of 6.7 billion was divided up among the participants to give a representation of how many are Asian, for example, how many are literate, how many will get food today—even though there’s enough food to go around.
To “close the circle,” everyone represented only themselves. How many of you are males? An easy beginning. How many of you are Catholics? How many have experimented with drugs? How many have ever contemplated suicide?
“It showed you there are other people in common with you,” Nate said. “Everybody comes from different circumstances, but we all share a lot of the same experiences.”
“It made me feel a lot closer to the other people,” added Leslie, a Morenci sophomore.
The problem for the two students last week was dealing with the withdrawal. The new friends have all returned home and Morenci’s two delegates are feeling a little alone. Leslie says she often feels like an idiot telling people how amazing it was. She came home and immediately set up a Facebook account for the conference delegates and staff members.
Every delegate wants to return next summer as a staff member, but of course there aren’t enough openings.
What about back at home? Couldn’t some of the exercises and experiences be replicated here? The two students are doubtful about that.
“Everybody thinks they already know you,” Leslie said.
At the conference, everyone started as strangers and the relationships grew. It’s not the same with established friends.
Nate believes he’s going to speak much more honestly now and he’s not sure how that will be accepted.
Reunions are already in the planning stage for delegates living in the same region of the country, and Leslie continues to have some deep discussions with her new friends—both on the telephone and on the internet.
No matter what might evolve in the future among the participants, they’re all certain of one thing: They’ve never before experienced anything like this.
“It was the best week of my life,” Nate said. “It sounds goofy and weird, but I will leave it at that.”