A young man goes to Washington, D.C. and meets with national leaders, from members of Congress to judges. The experience changes his life. This might sound like a movie plot, but a Waco high school senior can say with all sincerity that this happened to him, thanks to Baylor Law School.
In March, Omar Ramirez, a senior at A.J. Moore Academy, a Waco ISD magnet high school, participated in the National Civics and Law Academy in Washington. Baylor Law served as Ramirez's sponsor at the five-day program, paying for travel expenses and the costs for attending. Founded by the American Bar Association Commission on Civic Education in the Nation's Schools and the Close Up Foundation, the academy is a unique and extraordinary opportunity for young people to visit the nation's capital to experience "close up" the law, government and the justice systems in the United States.
"This opportunity was one that was a once in a lifetime chance for him," said Angela Reiher, A.J. Moore principal. "Omar's desire is to be a social studies teacher and instruct students in government. This gave him a chance to see what he is learning, in real practice."
Baylor Law Professor David Swenson, a member of the ABA civic education commission, learned about the academy and approached Baylor Law Dean Brad Toben about sponsoring a student. Toben enthusiastically endorsed the idea and asked Waco ISD administrators to help select a student who had an interest in government and public policy and would not have the financial ability to take part in such a trip.
"Baylor Law and the Waco Independent School District have been working throughout the year to strengthen civics education in the Waco public schools through the use of iCivics, an internet-based, interactive method of teaching civics developed under the leadership of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Because of this, Baylor Law has established a wonderful relationship with the Waco Independent School District so there was a natural connection to select a student participant from a local high school," Toben said.
After considering a number of candidates, Ramirez was chosen because of his hard work on iCivics at A.J. Moore and his love of social studies. To prepare him for the trip, Omar reviewed the curriculum from the government course he previously had completed and the economics curriculum from the class he currently is taking.
"We called Omar in to let him know that we felt that he did such a great job on the iCivics Project. We wanted to give him the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., to represent Baylor Law School and A.J. Moore. He was so excited. When his mom agreed to have him go, he became even more elated. It was a great moment I will cherish always," Reiher said.
The trip not only was Omar's first time out of state but also his first time to travel by air. He found the whole experience exciting. While attending the academy, he and his fellow students examined public policy issues from diverse perspectives, developed citizenship and leadership skills and met peers from throughout the nation. They also interacted directly in discussion seminars with national leaders in government and law, which offered participants an intimate and personal perspective on the three branches of government at work.
"We stayed busy the whole time. There were 25 kids in my group but just one other from Texas," he said. "The first night we got there, we got to know each other and saw some of Washington by night. During the next four days we spoke with an ambassador from one of the South American countries, toured the Smithsonian and sat in on a session of Congress after we had met a representative from Rhode Island. We went to workshops where we learned about the law and how law brought some of our leaders to their position."
The participants also visited museums and monuments, such as the Lincoln Memorial, the National Archives, and the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. They participated in an inspiring naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens. Between tours, they attended workshops and talked about the law.
"I love history and social studies, but I didn't know much about law," Omar said. "But this trip made me think a lot about law and public service. A district court judge who spoke to us really motivated me. He is from Texas, and he told us what he does for our country. I felt inspired to go into law."
Omar enjoyed meeting peers from around the country. He said they have stayed in contact through Facebook and by texting. They would like to have a reunion in the future. He also fell in love with Washington, D.C., even noticing the beauty of the cherry trees that were in full bloom.
"It's an amazing city. I would love to live there one day," he said.
Until then, Omar will continue to pursue his education. He plans to attend McLennan Community College after graduation and would like to go to Baylor to get a degree in education. He had planned on becoming a social studies teacher, like his mentor, A.J. Moore teacher Dan Pfleging, but now is considering law school.
Reiher hopes students from Waco ISD will continue to have the opportunity to attend the Academy.
"With our students being 89 percent economically disadvantaged, the chance to participate in this experience is a rarity were it not for the generosity of Baylor Law," she said. "Many of our students go to college locally as they have to work to assist in supporting the family. Traveling to Washington and attending such a prestigious conference opens their minds on what the real world outside of Waco is like. It's an opportunity for the students to see our government in action, first hand, and be able to relate their classroom learning. It makes learning relevant."