A group of Cottonwood Heights youth capitalized on a chance to visit Washington, D.C., as special guests of Utah Sen. Mike Lee. As winners of last year's Constitution Bowl, their grand prize included tours of the most historical places in the nation's capital.
"We got to explore the awesome city, and it was the best feeling ever," said Monica Kowalski, a junior at Hillcrest High. "We may never have that opportunity again."
Kowalski and four other teens visited D.C. in mid-February. The group represented the Cottonwood Heights youth city council that competed against three other teams in the contest back in September.
"We didn't go into the competition thinking we were going to win it, but we hoped we did," Kowalski said. "When we did put all that effort and teamwork together, it made the trip that much better."
The competition tested the students about their knowledge of the Constitution, federal and state government. Scott Bracken, Cottonwood Heights councilman and team adviser, said his group almost gave up all hopes early on.
"After the first round, I figured we were toast," Bracken said. "We had the largest negative score."
In the second round, things changed dramatically for his group, Bracken said. The team gained momentum, grabbed a big lead and never looked back. The members waited five months to claim their prize, but it was all worth it as Bracken called it truly a "once in a lifetime" experience.
"If you go to D.C., you might as well get invited by your senator or congressman," he said. "We did a lot of things that you wouldn't normally do because simply we had that invitation."
When they arrived in D.C., Spencer Stokes, Lee's former chief of staff, gave the group a night tour of the city. Since it happened to be the night of the State of the Union Address, they also got to see the president's motorcade.
"It was so cool [as] President [Barack] Obama was just a couple of hundred feet in front of us," said Haley Roberts, a senior from Brighton High School.
The next day the group met up with Lee for a tour of the Capitol, and they also got the unique chance to tour the dome of the historical building.
"We hiked the 330 steps, and they took us outside where we had the 360-degree view of Washington," Bracken said. "It was absolutely gorgeous up there."
The bustling Capitol scene afforded the opportunity to catch glimpses of well-known faces such as those of Sen. John McCain, Rep. Paul Ryan and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The group sat in on the Senate in session and ate lunch in style in the Senate Dining Room.
No trip to D.C. would be complete without seeing the White House. Lee accompanied the group on a tour of the first floor of the presidential residence. They even ran into the president's dog and got to pet it.
"It was interesting to be there with the senator," Bracken said. "The kids really had a good time."
Bracken and the youth extended their stay and did some activities on their own, such as going to see a play at Ford's Theatre, the site of Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865.
Although the students missed almost a week of school, Bracken said the experience was educational outside the bounds of classroom walls.
"It's different to be there," he said. "You get a better idea, and to me, it makes a ton of difference."
Roberts, who got a spot on the team after another student dropped out at the last minute, said she was thankful to have the chance to explore "the prettiest city" she's ever seen.
"I was not expecting this," she said. "We were going to have fun and a good experience, but since we won, it was incredible."
She said she appreciated that Lee took the time to show them around the Capitol and the White House because it gave them a chance to interact with him on a personal level.
"I was just impressed because he probably had 101 things he had to do, but he was kind enough to schedule us in," Roberts said.
Another thing that impressed her was getting to see the political goings-on in the center of government. Although she'd been to D.C. once before, she was only 5 then and was not interested in the historical value of the place.
"Now that I'm older and just a little bit more mature, it was just awesome because I got to appreciate it, and it's something I'll never forget," Roberts said.
Furthermore, the numerous memorials that only bored her before now have a new meaning.
"I didn't understand what they stood for," she said. "It has definitely increased my appreciation for this country."
Emily Bennion, press secretary for Lee's office, said the Constitution Bowl only included 25 students last year because it was in its launching stage.
"Sen. Lee and his office plan to hold the event each September to commemorate Constitution Day," she said. "He and the Utah League of Cities and Towns [plan] to expand the event this year to include more groups."
Launched in September to commemorate the 225th the anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.
Contest styled after TV game show "Jeopardy!" and sponsored by Mike Lee and the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
Students from Taylorsville, Cottonwood Heights, North Salt Lake and West Point competed.
Winners were invited to Washington, D.C., and accompanied by Lee on tours of the Capitol and the White House.