Wilfried Kuugauraq Zibell, a recent graduate from Noorvik Aqqaiuk High School is heading to Harvard this fall. Zibell participated in the United States Senate Youth Program, colloquially known by participants as “Washington week,” which happened in March. - Courtesy of Wilfried Zibell

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Noorvik graduate reflects on Senate program

May 12th, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder Print this article   Email this article  

With tassels and diploma in tow, a recent graduate from Noorvik Aqqaiuk High School is heading to Harvard.

Graduation was great, but for Wilfried Kuugauraq Zibell, 17, the next step is exciting, too.

"For heading off to college, I'm more trepidatious than I'd like to be. It's farther away than Anchorage," he said. "It's going to be a tough transition but I'm looking forward to the challenge."

Zibell is no stranger to stepping outside his comfort zone. When the Sounder last spoke with him, he had just been accepted to the United States Senate Youth Program, colloquially known by participants as "Washington week," which happened in March.

"It was honestly incredible. It was an eye-opening experience," he said. "We had some pretty amazing opportunities. Suffice it to say, not many 17-year-olds get to ask a question of the chief justice of the supreme court."

During the program, finding himself face-to-face with Chief Justice John Roberts, Zibell asked the justice's thoughts on how rapidly advancing technology affects his view of the Constitutional rights of Americans, especially with regard to privacy. Roberts' response was surprisingly "adaptive," Zibell said, which he took as positive.

The 104 student delegates from around the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity got to meet several dignitaries like Roberts during their time in the capital, including the surgeon general, the secretary of state, the president, and the ambassador to the U.S. from Israel.

"We got to witness a floor session in the Senate. It was a vote they were taking on removing accountability regulations from state departments of education. That was an interesting vote and it definitely led to a lot of debate later, over dinner," Zibell said. "That was another highlight of the program for me, how engaged all 104 delegates were and how easy it was to have a lively debate and still come back as friends afterwards."

Those dinnertime conversations led to one of the greatest takeaways for Zibell following the program.

"[I've come away with] a respect for procedural and reasoned debate, even with people you disagree with entirely, and then a respect for true bipartisanship," he said. "Even when you can't come to terms on an issue, for the ability to go out to dinner afterwards and discuss things and come to a mutual respect, as people, even if you can't come to a mutual agreement as legislators, I think is an important skill to have in the future."

Along with fellow student Madeline Mae-yi Ko, of Palmer, Zibell had to be the face of Alaska to all his fellow participants. His home state was a popular topic of conversation, he said.

"They had questions ranging from, 'Do you have indoor plumbing?' and, 'Do you have electricity?' to, 'How far is the nearest Walmart?' It was all good-natured," he said.

As all Alaskans know, those are tough questions to answer. The state is so vast and so diverse when it comes to living situations and communities, there's no single right answer, Zibell said.

He used questions like those to talk about Noorvik, and how it has many amenities that even nearby villages do not yet.

Going into the program, one of his goals was to bring up the topic of Alaska's high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault with various national legislators. He didn't have as much opportunity to do that as he would have hoped, he said, but it didn't hold him back.

"I did have a chance to discuss them with my fellow delegates more," he said. "We definitely found that there was a lot of commonality in issues facing our states. It gave me a lot of hope for problem-solving going forward."

Zibell plans to keep in touch with many of his fellow participants and said he'll even be going to college with a handful of them, which he hopes will lead to more opportunities down the line.

"All of these experiences have absolutely solidified my desire to go into law and eventually into politics. I think it is, in a sense, my calling," he said. "It's something I want to dedicate my life to."

His advice for students still in school? Get involved now, he said. Choose an activity, a hobby, join the school board, learn about politics, and take it as far as you're able to. It's important to have the voices of youth heard, he said.

"I think having young people in the debate certainly helps," he said. "I think we, as young people, have less ironclad, less set in stone worldviews and we can sometimes be more willing to see things from the other side than our older colleagues are. So, I think having us in the conversation can be a unifying factor."


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