Meredith O'Connor spent last week as a foreign intelligence expert, an attorney arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and a congresswoman fighting for legislation.
The 16-year-old Owen Brown village resident and Mount de Sales Academy junior attended the National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, where she participated in role-playing activities and met representatives from congressional offices, diplomats from the Finland embassy and journalists at the National Press Club.
Meredith had studied the American political system, but it had always seemed purely theoretical before last week, she said.
"When you're there, actually experiencing it, you feel much closer to politics and the way it works. That was the most valuable thing I learned," said Meredith, who transferred recently to the private Catholic school from Glenelg High School.
She was one of 350 students chosen nationwide to participate in the six-day conference.
The conference was sponsored by the Congressional Youth Leadership Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization in Washington. The council sponsors 20 conferences throughout the year.
"The National Young Leaders Conference is unique in that it provides outstanding young people with direct access to Washington's leaders," said John Hines, the council's executive director.
He said the session helps the students develop their analytical abilities and advocacy skills.
In one role-playing activity, Meredith played a Central Intelligence Agency director evaluating military actions to help end the conflict in Bosnia.
In another, she played an attorney defending the constitutional rights of a high school principal who invited a rabbi to speak at a public school graduation. Her peers played Supreme Court justices and opposing attorneys. The mock trial was based on an actual case in Providence, R.I.
Meredith also played a member of the Democratic Caucus in the U.S. Congress who advocated a version of the National Service and Education Act of 1994, a proposal that ties college financial aid to community service work. Students who played Republican Caucus members opposed the bill or fought for different versions of it.
As a legislator would on the Senate or House floor, Meredith presented a one-minute speech to the students on the value of the legislation as an investment for the future.
"I know how Congress works now, and how long and trying it is to get a bill passed," she said. "It's the most suspenseful thing you can imagine."
Students are chosen for the program based on their academic records and leadership potential. James P. Mundy, Meredith's Advanced Placement Government and Politics teacher last year at Glenelg High, recommended her for the conference after she expressed an interest in it.
"She seemed taken with the process and fascinated with the gamesmanship," Mr. Mundy said. "I thought she would be a good match."
Meredith said the conference helped to increase her confidence in public speaking and her ability to follow political events.
"You walk away with a really great feeling that you know more about what's going on in the country," she said.
Meredith was a member of Glenelg High's track and lacrosse teams last year and participated in the Student Government Association. She's currently a member of Mount de Sales Academy's lacrosse team.