Photo courtesy of Neely Griggs.
Chelsea students at the World War II memorial.
Ryan Adams first attended the Close Up Foundation’s Washington, D.C., program in 1997. Now an AP U.S. History teacher at Chelsea High School, Adams returned to the program with his students in November.
“One of the things Close Up asked of the participants was, ‘It’s not what you do when you’re there. It’s what you do when you go back,’” Adams said. “It’s kind of, well I don’t want to say cheesy, but it took me 18 years for me to give back.”
Close Up is a weeklong program where high school students from around the country learn about U.S. history and government processes. Eight students from Chelsea attended the 2015 program, and they were the first group from Shelby County to attend, Adams said.
“It was really cool because the senators had heard of it [Close Up], but they’d never really met us,” said CHHS junior Neely Griggs. “It felt really good to be part of something that was just getting off.”
After receiving approval from Chelsea Principal Wayne Trucks regarding the trip, Adams said he presented the idea to all of his AP U.S. History classes as well as the other A.P. history classes at the school. Griggs said her passion for politics and hope to plan for the future were two reasons she attended.
“I really love D.C., so of course that was a factor, but I’ve always been interested in politics and I just wanted to learn more,” she said. “I wanted to get a better idea of what I could do, what could be possible occupations.”
CHHS junior Cade Pruitt said he also enjoys studying government and politics, and he thought going to the nation’s capital would provide a chance to learn more.
“I thought going to Washington, that’s where it all goes down, so where else would be better to go?” Pruitt said.
Students were able to meet Sen. Richard Shelby and Rep. Gary Palmer, who represent Shelby County in Washington. As one of the first groups from a Shelby County school, Adams said their group made an impression on the legislators.
“Even if other schools in the Shelby County area become involved, we were still the first,” Adams said. “We still made that first impression, and we only get that chance once.”
Students were able to ask the congressmen questions and hear more about how government operates on the national level. Pruitt said it was also interesting to interact with the people in Washington on behalf of Chelsea.
“I thought it was awesome because they’re representing us up there, and they have a tremendous responsibility and power, you could say, because they represent our beliefs and thoughts,” Griggs said.
In addition to its educational benefits, Adams said the trip aims to build interpersonal connections for students. Pruitt said the chance to talk openly with students from other states helped him learn about the differences and similarities throughout the country.
“If I could narrow it down, all of it was great, but I think for me, the best part was just getting to meet all of those people from around the country and getting to talk to them and learn about their cultures and societies,” Pruitt said.
Students confronted the stereotypes they held about other states, Pruitt said, and were encouraged to discuss their political, religious and social beliefs.
“It really pushes you out of your comfort zone, and it makes you talk and voice your opinions,” Griggs said. “It widens your worldview, and I think it really just teaches you.”
At the end of the week, each group selected a representative to recap their group’s experience. Pruitt was selected to represent his group, and he said while most of his classmates would describe him as quiet, he was able to show off his public speaking skills during his presentation.
“He absolutely commanded the room,” Adams said. “It was so awesome to see. The experience I had 18 years ago, I’m seeing it now.”
This year was an ideal time to attend Close Up, Adams said, because of the Chelsea community. When Adams first taught at Chelsea High School in 2005, a smaller student body meant the program might not have grown; it could have been a “one and done” effort, Adams said.
The growth Chelsea has seen in the last decade, Adams said, means a greater chance for community support.
“I’m given the best and brightest in Chelsea, so why not expand what the best and brightest can do?” Adams said.
Although he went into the trip expecting Chelsea to attend Close Up every other year, that plan changed after he saw his students’ reactions. By the end of the week, Chelsea High School was signed up for Close Up 2016. Adams said he hopes more students can attend future programs, and he plans to raise funds in order to make that a reality.
Palmer will visit Chelsea in March to address the student body and encourage more students to participate in Close Up, and Adams said he hopes community members will also hear about the program and support it financially.
“These students, they represent Chelsea,” Adams said. “They [Chelsea residents] can give to this cause because it promotes Chelsea, it promotes this area, it promotes Shelby County.”