WASHINGTON -- Daniela Ceja calls it a life-changing experience and Leo Gonzalez would go again if he got another chance.
Ceja and Gonzalez took part in a weeklong High School Latino Leaders conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
Ceja, 15, is a sophomore at Le Grand High School, and Gonzalez will be a junior at Merced High School this fall.
Along with two Fresno high schoolers, Ceja and Gonzalez were among 40 low-income students from nine metropolitan areas across the country to meet with congressmen, tour the White House and Library of Congress, and visit the memorials in Washington.
"It was life-changing," Ceja said. "I got to meet so many people. I totally recommend this for anyone. I want to make change in the community. We had a lot of debates, and it was so interesting."
Ceja wants to go to a major university and study psychology; she wouldn't mind becoming a teacher, principal or psychologist. At Le Grand High, she is part of the "Impact" group that plans talent shows and raises health awareness among students.
Gonzalez, 16, toured Washington, D.C., when he was 10 years old, but his recollection of that trip is a bit fuzzy. While taking part in the late-July institute, the memories of his first visit came back more vividly and his long-dormant interest in politics was rekindled.
"I really enjoyed it," Gonzalez said. "We got to see how Congress passes laws, and it taught us important leadership skills. You can see how voices can be heard. Now I have a better understanding of how things work. I recommend this to anyone who wants to go. I learned a lot."
Gonzalez wants to go to UC Davis and major in animal science. His goal is to become a veterinarian.
In partnership with State Farm Insurance, the founding sponsor of the program, and the nonprofit Close Up Foundation, the 40 youthful participants got a chance to see inner workings of the federal government, meet important leaders, visit historic sites and develop a deeper understanding of how they can affect positive change in their communities.
Esther Aguilera, the institute's president and chief executive officer, said the 40 talented Latino high school students are eager to learn more about government and policy making, as well as how to prepare themselves to be the leaders of tomorrow.
Ceja, a Planada resident, has been involved with the Building Healthy Communities program. She said the Washington experience boosted her inspiration to get involved in community events. She met with former Congressman Dennis Cardoza, Congressman Jim Costa and the Canadian and Panamanian ambassadors to the United States.
"Making sure that students from all backgrounds develop the skills and attitudes to become active and engaging citizens is important to the health of our democracy," said Timothy Davis, president and CEO of the Close Up Foundation.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.