High school students from across the state of Utah assembled at Camp Williams for a week of learning, honing leadership skills, developing friendships, finding deeper purpose, and solidifying their understanding of freedom, beginning July 16, 2023. Since 1961 the Utah National Guard and Honorary Colonels Corps have sponsored Freedom Academy, an event held for students between their junior and senior year of high school.
Over the course of the week the students, referred to as delegates, visited the Utah State Capitol, the Unified Police Department, KUTV 2 news station, the Utah State prison, and other important elements of civil government. While visiting these locations, they listened to speakers who emphasized the importance of civic involvement and preserving freedom, and were given demonstrations of what these different organizations do to protect and preserve our freedoms. The Freedom Academy program as a whole is organized with the intent of educating future leaders of the community.
Lt. Col. D.J. Gibb, the director of Freedom Academy, spoke about the goals of this weeklong event. He said, “Our hope for each delegate, by attending Freedom Academy, is they come away with a renewed sense of patriotism, an understanding of how our country's freedoms work… and also a core desire to continue furthering our freedoms.”
Capt. Chase Stilson, a commander in 1st Battalion, 145th Field Artillery Regiment, Utah Army National Guard, and a staff member of Freedom Academy, said that as the delegates see many examples of role models in leadership, the hope is they will come away with a better idea of what they can do to support our freedoms as future leaders and role models themselves.
This vision is shared by those who work directly with the delegates. As a counselor, Staff Sgt. Kiera Mills of the 151st Medical Group in the Utah Air National Guard, was assigned a group of delegates to lead throughout the week. As a former delegate herself, she was able to speak on both experiences. “When I was a delegate, I was able to see more of who I was and who I wanted to be” said Mills. She said Freedom Academy is a great place for students to learn leadership skills, find a greater sense of purpose, and find what they could do to give back to their communities.
Sgt. 1st Class Dan Naylor of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion in the Utah Army National Guard, shared his appreciation for Freedom Academy, and the reasoning behind it. “I think that the goal of this entire (event) is to make this younger generation aware of the sacrifice, the time, and the effort that it takes to maintain such a great country,” said Naylor.
According to the delegates, Freedom Academy achieves its purpose. On the second day of Freedom Academy, Cambria Hansen of American Fork High School said that learning more about the country has made her appreciate her freedoms even more. “I’ve learned that leadership is about helping others to be successful,” she said. After visiting the Utah State Capitol, Gianfranco Revilla of Lone Peak High School said that leadership is not about showing off, but about adding value to your community.
The average day at Freedom Academy begins at 6 a.m. and is packed with activities until 10 p.m. In addition to attending tours and listening to others speak, the delegates were given a chance to attend concerts put on by Vocalocity and the Utah Army National Guard Rock Band, ‘Article 15’. They are also given time to display their own talents. On the 4th night, delegates had the opportunity to participate in a speech contest. The winner of the speech contest, Eva Cavaness of Wasatch Independent Debate League, gave a speech on the importance of diversity. She emphasized the importance of freedoms that allow us to be different from one another, saying that “all of our beautiful differences come from our freedoms.”
On the final night students, counselors, and staff alike joined together to sing “God Bless the U.S.A.” Over the course of the week, delegates had the chance to become acquainted with students from other schools, and unlikely friendships were certainly formed. In the words of Sgt. Naylor, “This isn’t your normal high school scene… it’s a big melting pot.”
Freedom Academy concluded with a final graduation ceremony on the morning of the final day. The delegates assembled one final time to hear some words of inspiration from leadership and guest speaker Dr. Scott Anderson. Finally, delegates were sent back on their personal journey, armed with a new understanding, and appreciation of freedom.