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Last June, Lauren and I went to Washington D.C. to celebrate her achievement in earning the Congressional Award Gold Medal from Congress. I was placed in this year’s ceremony so we had the opportunity to go back and enjoy the wonderful ambience of the country’s capital again.

I have been involved in The Congressional Award program for many years. It is a program that changed my life in so many positive ways and it was an honor to be presented with my Gold Award at the Capitol on June 17th. My sister, Lauren, and I even wrote a book about how influential the program was for us and how you can benefit from it too. There were less than 300 people who earned the Gold Medal this year, so I had the opportunity to meet some of my amazing peers.

I want to share a bit about what went on during the two days of celebration!

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My family and I arrived to D.C. on Tuesday evening a few hours before the Recognition Dinner was held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. At this dinner I met other students who had earned the Gold Medal and had a chance to speak with them about what they did to earn it. The Congressional Award is earned by completing a certain amount of hours in physical fitness, personal development, and volunteerism over a certain amount of months, and by completing cultural or wilderness immersion experiences. We talked about what we had done to earn our hours, and what the program meant to us.

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A main highlight of this dinner was having the opportunity to meet U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson, an amazing woman who has achieved so much in her lifetime and is still doing great things. Lauren and I got to chat with her and hear some great advice. At this dinner we also heard incredible speeches given by Steve Pemberton, Honorary John Dingell, Paxton Baker, and our friend Mary Rodgers who was awarded with the Inspiration Award that night.

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The next morning was the day of the ceremony. At 9am my family and I went to the Cannon Caucus Room at Capitol Hill and waited for the ceremony to begin. The ceremony was led by Chip Reid of CBS News and the keynote speech was delivered by Steve Culbertson of Youth Service America. Each awardee was given his or her medal in front of a room filled with family, friend, and inspiring leaders.

It has been difficult to accept that I’ve fully completed the Congressional Award program after having been so influenced by it for so many years. I’ve decided that as I venture further into adulthood I will continue to set goals, measure my achievement, and hold myself accountable to improvement. This program may be complete, but the next chapter is waiting to be written.

Culture

When I moved to Washington, D.C. eight months ago for a Capitol Hill internship in a Senator’s office, my mom told me I should keep my options open and that I could stay for the summer if the opportunity arose. I immediately pushed the idea aside. I had a job as a summer teller at a credit union waiting for me at home in upstate New York. It paid pretty well, wasn’t stressful, and I liked my coworkers. I couldn’t see giving up a sure thing. Plus, I had just finished a semester abroad in Denmark and I figured that by the end of the semester I would be more than ready to just have a relaxing “last summer at home before I graduate from college.”

Less than a month later I had been asked to stay and work in the Senator’s campaign office after my official Hill internship ended in May.

I definitely struggled with this choice, although almost all the outside advice that I got was to go for it. Ultimately, I listened to those voices and felt that I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to continue working on issues that interest me and for a person who I believe in. The opportunity to beef up my resume sweetened the deal.

Ultimately, once this opportunity arose I knew it wouldn’t be smart to turn it down. I can say for sure that I don’t want to be a bank teller “when I grow up.” I don’t know exactly what I what I want to be, but I do know that my time in our nation’s capital inspired me to want more for myself and I felt like I fit. For the first time I was surrounded by other people my age that wanted to talk about politics, or what was going on in the world, or what made us happy or mad or sad. Our elected officials, even in the midst of the “do-nothing congress,” inspired me, and I had the opportunity to see them in person, passionately speaking on important issues in hearings or on the Senate floor. I rode in an elevator with John McCain and I ran into Barbara Boxer struggling with her luggage at Union Station. For a political science nerd like myself, it was heaven.

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My experience had low points as well. At the end of the spring semester, most of the amazing friends that I made left for the summer. Some of the new-ness of the experience wore off and reality set in. I decided that I wanted to come back to DC after I graduate in December, but I started to realize how many amazing, smart, talented people have the same plan that I do. It is definitely not going to be easy to move back to a city where I don’t know many people and try to start a life. The blueprint I have in my head for that life is definitely blurrier now than it was in March or April.

Here’s what I know: I’m going to give it a shot. The past eight months have been an experiment in stepping outside of my comfort zone. This is not something I have been historically known to do, but I decided it was time for me to make a little bit of an effort. I have also had to stop and cut myself some slack and remember that I am only twenty years old and I have time to figure things out. There have been moments where I have been so uncomfortable or nervous that I wanted to quit, but I have gotten through those moments and I am proud of myself for that. So that is the headspace I am trying to maintain. A lot of smart people have told me to have a plan, but to be flexible, because life is an unpredictable beast. As I start my last semester as an undergrad and make plans for afterwards, I am keeping that in mind.

Culture

Motivation can often be the toughest energy to muster. Whether it’s short term motivation like starting an essay early, or long term motivation like exercising consistently, finding motivation can be hard when easy excuses tempt us. But at the end of the day that little voice in your head is still encouraging you to step up your game and be the best you can be. Next time you feel yourself losing focus or getting distracted, remember that the weight of regret always drags you down but the success of discipline can make you feel light as a feather.