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Lauren Nalepa has never traveled alone or set foot in the nation’s capital.

As long as war doesn’t disrupt travel next week — her mom’s rule — the 17-year-old Kadena High School student will fly solo to Washington, D.C., to spend a week touring the city and rubbing elbows with politicians, diplomats and a handful of her teenage countrymen.

The trip is part of the Presidential Classroom, a program that brings exceptional teens to Washington for a week to learn about and see their government in action. They’ll visit Congress and the White House, several embassies, museums and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“My mom’s a little nervous,” said Nalepa. She’s a little nervous, too. “I’ve never been on an airplane without my family before.”

Nalepa first learned of the 35-year-old program last fall. She applied, along with friend Jennifer Otterson, also a Kadena senior, at the encouragement of their Advanced Placement government teacher John Dawson. Both were accepted.

The girls received Booster Club scholarships to pay half the $1,150 tutition. They’ll use frequent flier miles for the airfare.

In addition to tours and stately visits, the students will participate in debates and meetings. Their days are packed with activities, which Otterson believes will dissipate the effects of jetlag.

“As long as they keep me awake all the time the first couple of days, I’ll be OK,” she said.

More than 100,000 students have participated in the program since it began, according to organizers.

“We provide the rare opportunity for students to examine Washington and our government beyond the marble buildings,” said Jack Buechner, president of the nonprofit Presidential Classroom program.

Nalepa left for Washington on Friday, and Otterson departed Saturday. The program generally separates friends into different groups to foster interaction with new people, something the teens favor.

“Here, we’re average high school students, but there, we’ll be different,” Otterson said. “I hope I get to meet a lot of new friends.”

Nalepa agrees.

“No one’s going to know what Okinawa is,” she said. “I haven’t lived in the U.S. since I was 10. This is a chance to be more of an American again.”


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