My Father was Right: The NRA Youth Education Summit Would Change My Life

I was sitting in the living room when my father tossed a copy of the NRA magazine “American Rifleman” towards me and said definitively “You need to apply for this.” 

When the magazine landed in my lap, I saw an article about the Youth Education Summit (Y.E.S). It detailed an opportunity for students to spend a week with the National Rifle Association in Washington, D.C. learning about their programs while growing the organization’s leadership skills. My dad was insistent that this was going to be a formative experience that I would appreciate and cherish for the rest of my life. It would turn out that, as much as people my age often don’t want our parents to always be right, he was that time. My father had been a long-time member of the NRA, and prior to my experience at the Y.E.S, it was a passion we had not had an opportunity to bond over. The more I continued to investigate the program, the more I saw that it would both align with and challenge beliefs that I had, and I was excited by the opportunity. 

NRA’s Y.E.S. is now in its second decade. Attendees are selected through a submission process that requires an application form, high-school transcript, three-page essay on the Second Amendment, personal statement and three letters of recommendation. At the annual Y.E.S. conference, the NRA gathers selected students in Washington, D.C. to meet political leaders, tour prominent monuments and apply their debating skills. We explore our American government, Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. We are encouraged to become responsible citizens who engage in the democratic process and bring a proactive voice for the Second Amendment to our community.

Madeline and fellow Y.E.S participants pose at the National Mall

Madeline and fellow Y.E.S participants pose at the National Mall

Through Y.E.S, the NRA offers $40,000 in college scholarships for students who demonstrate strong leadership skills and well-informed involvement during the event’s activities, which feature seminars and debates on the relevant pressing issues of the day.

Before participating in Y.E.S., I already had a defined passion for politics and policy and had discovered and fostered these passions through the Youth In Government program. Within that program, students had the opportunity to participate in a mock governmental system, acting as United States legislators, proposing and debating their own legislation. While this experience was also one of the most formative in my high-school years, I still felt that I had not found an issue that I was most passionate about, until I attended the Y.E.S. 

Growing up in Door County Wisconsin, I was always surrounding by hunting and firearm use at the gun range. Often, on Sundays after church, we would stop by the range on the way home so that my dad could sight in his firearms or teach us how to properly use them. However, my true understanding of the importance of the Second Amendment, appropriate firearm usage and passion for educating other on firearm safety, firearm legislation, and the accuracy and inaccuracy of what we hear about firearms in modern media, was truly sparked by my participation in the Y.E.S.

The 2018 Y.E.S class at the U.S. Capitol.

The 2018 Y.E.S class at the U.S. Capitol.

With a week until the deadline, I scrambled to prepare my application, doubtful of my chances as I lacked self-confidence in my knowledge and preparation, but hopeful to take part in such a unique opportunity as it aligned with my interest in policy and politics. I spent many hours on the application trying to craft the perfect representation of who I was, hoping that someone out there would see my potential. The effort paid off, and I was enthralled when I received my acceptance packet in the mail. 

I am so eternally grateful to have been granted the experience to participate in the Y.E.S. program. Looking back on my trip, it was truly one of the most formative experiences of my life. It helped me hone debate and discussion skills as a participant in our program debate teams. It familiarized me with the NRA’s work to protect the Second Amendment and how lobbyist groups function within American politics. I was able to shed my lack of confidence, find my voice and feel empowered to share my thoughts, passions, and opinions with others in an intelligent and articulate way. Most significantly, I created a network of like-minded, inspiring and engaged young Americans who I still call upon as close friends. 

It is incredibly hard to describe the significance that individuals can have on your life, but my best effort would be to share that members of my Y.E.S. class have been some of my closest confidants, biggest cheerleaders and most profound inspirations. With a network spanning across the U.S., it has been wonderful reconnecting with individuals from my class whenever I am near them or reminiscing on our experiences whenever the group chat lights back up. It is important to recognize the significance your class has on your experience, and I find it necessary to share how grateful I am for mine. 

Madeline (right) with Y.E.S Participants Kelsey Coon and Noah Bright on a group tip to Mount Vernon.

Madeline (right) with Y.E.S Participants Kelsey Coon and Noah Bright on a group tip to Mount Vernon.

I found through my time working with the NRA that they reinforced my ability to communicate my viewpoints eloquently and intelligently. Part of my newfound confidence was derived from being selected to have my personal essay from my application highlighted on the NRA blog. A key component of that personal essay emphasized my desire to take the knowledge gained from that experience home with me and help others strengthen their voices to utilize our government, and looking back, this experience gave me the opportunity to just that, and so much more. 

Taking the skills in debate, conversation, lobbying, fundraising, networking and more allowed me to influence and collaborate with other individuals who I worked with. I have continuously seen how these skills have allowed me to become a better leader and participant throughout the last six years. I’ve lobbied in Madison, Wisconsin regarding minimum wage laws and working hours and I’ve lobbied in Birmingham, Alabama for higher education funding. I’ve brought fundraising skills into my work as a Director for the University of Alabama’s Homecoming and within the honor societies that I participate in. My debate and conversational skills have played large roles in my successes in class, Youth in Government, The University of Alabama’s Student Government Association, the Blackburn Institute, and across a variety of other interactions. What I am really trying to say here, is that the NRA’s Y.E.S was the catalyst in my personal and professional growth that taught me the skills I needed to be as successful as possible in my endeavors thereafter. 

The 2018 Y.E.S. class poses at the NRA Headquarter’s indoor gun range.

The 2018 Y.E.S. class poses at the NRA Headquarter’s indoor gun range.

Not only did I learn essential skills to being a great student and civic leader, but my newfound passion for and knowledge of the Second Amendment strengthened my relationship with my parents. The knowledge I had gained allowed me to sustain meaningful conversations with both my mother and father about my thoughts on basic rights of American citizens, my thoughts on the functions of the government as well as the representatives that we had in power. This allowed my parents to see me in a new, more grown-up light. My ability to now articulate my viewpoints and support my thoughts with facts rather than opinions, gained me respect from my parents, solidifying both my capabilities and independence. 

As time has gone on, firearms have continued to be a common bond between my father and me. On holidays when I am home from school we enjoy spending our time at the range, catching up on what we’ve missed in each other’s lives while sharing a sport we both enjoy. I also recognize how steadfast my passion has become for protecting the Second Amendment and educating others on the uses of firearms, the impacts of mental health regarding firearms, the NRA’s program offerings, and general knowledge regarding firearm legislation. I try to continue to share the knowledge I gained from my experience at Y.E.S. 

I am so grateful for the impact that the NRA’s Y.E.S. has had on myself personally, my relationships with my family and my endeavors throughout high school and college. The skills and exposure that I gained there served as a catalyst to my successes following this experience. I would encourage anyone interested in this opportunity to push themselves out of their comfort zone, and just go for it, because you will not regret it. 

Madeline Blahnik is a Senior at the University of Alabama, double majoring in Finance and Economics. Originally from Door County, Wisconsin, Madeline will be moving to Birmingham, Alabama, post-graduation to be an analyst for Vulcan Value Partners. Madeline first became involved with the NRA as a member of the 2018 Youth Education Summit, and her personal essay is featured on the NRA Blog. At the University of Alabama, Madeline serves as the Chief of Staff for the Vice President of Student Affairs of the Student Government Association, a member of the Blackburn Institute, an analyst for the Culverhouse Investment Management Group, and the Director of Strategic Communications for the American Enterprise Institute’s University of Alabama Executive Council. Additionally, Madeline serves as the Director of Halftime and Reception for the University of Alabama’s Homecoming and is a member of Pi Beta Phi. 

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