Nearly every year, 61 years running, the Utah National Guard has hosted Freedom Academy, an immersive week-long experience tailored and designed to promote the ideals and principles of the United States of America to high school students. Each summer, late in the season, student delegates from across the state of Utah assemble on Camp Williams for an unforgettable week of hands-on experience with prominent Utah government leaders, businesses, and military capabilities, while hearing stories of adversity and triumph from refugees and local leaders. The curriculum is designed to serve the academic, social, spiritual, and recreational needs of the delegate. The aim is to have each student return to their schools for their senior year and share the experience and spirit of patriotism with their friends and classmates. Freedom Academy 2022 took place July 10-15 at Camp Williams.
"We teach our young leaders the importance of all aspects of freedom,” said Lt. Col. Bruce Lewis, former Freedom Academy director.
“Freedoms come with a price, and every American citizen has a responsibility to preserve it for future generations," he said.
This year marked the 60th Freedom Academy, despite the fact that the program has been in place for 61 years (Freedom Academy was placed on pause during the pandemic of 2020). Every year the week is broken up into themes designed to represent freedoms held, such as freedom of the press, right to representation, and freedom of speech. Students learn from Supreme Court justices, interact with local media, and get the opportunity to truly understand what it means to live in a country where freedom of speech is an unalienable right.
“It gives me a lot of hope as the director of Freedom Academy to see this incoming senior class of 2023 take such an interest and show hope for the future of our country,” said Lt. Col. D.J. Gibb, Freedom Academy director.
As part of the immersive experience, delegates get hands-on training in a number of disciplines designed to promote teamwork and critical thinking. One such experience is the Leadership Reaction Course at Camp Williams, a series of obstacles where small groups must work together with limited tools to accomplish a task, such as transporting goods across a pool of water without getting wet.
“You’re trying to figure out how to solve problems with your team and communicate,” said Megan Harris, a student delegate from Wasatch High School.
“Sometimes people have to step up and lead the mission – and you have a bunch of people giving ideas. You don’t want to fall in the water and get wet. It has been really fun getting to know the team,” she said.
“It’s helped me become a better leader by listening to others,” added fellow delegate Julia Rentschler, a senior at American Leadership Academy.
“Being a leader means listening to others, and hearing their ideas to reach the end goal. It was really fun watching the team, sliding over obstacles, and helping each other out,” she said.
While days are long and full, evenings at Freedom Academy are the time for delegates to bond and get to know one another and their counselors. Most nights are spent poolside at Camp Williams and each evening has some type of dinner and social event aimed to create lifelong bonds and partnerships. Student delegates are broken up into small groups during the week and each group is assigned to a counselor. The counselor stays with his or her group through the duration of the week and takes on a mentorship role.
“The most fulfilling part of this week is trying to get these kids to leave here with some knowledge and perspective on the world. Something that they can take back to their schools,” said Staff Sgt. James Dansie, a counselor at Freedom Academy 2022. “The first thing I told my group is that they’re here for a reason. Most of them are leaders in their schools – they can influence people a lot greater than they think they are capable of. People listen to them. So I like to think that they have a moral and social obligation to take the lessons they learn here and help their peers to become better.”
“That’s what this is about, becoming better, and understanding our freedoms, and them being able to make their schools better, based on what they learned here. Teaching these kids things like sympathy and empathy, they can now see what they want to change in our world and they can be the change,” he continued
The week also aims to show student delegates the opportunities available to them through government service. Elected officials, judges, police officers, and military personnel all give thorough and explanatory tours and demonstrations of opportunities and ways to serve.
“We really hope that these delegates from Freedom Academy will learn how to hone the skills that they have and discover new skills,” said Tech Sgt. Katie Horne, a counselor at Freedom Academy 2022. “They have plenty of opportunities to dig deep and learn how to connect with people and learn how to become great leaders in their communities. They can take that with them for the rest of their lives.”
Ample learning time is balanced with specific and specialized hands-on experiences all designed to leave delegates with memories that last a lifetime.
“I honestly expected us to be holed up in a room with a lot more talking to us,” said Kali Jones, a delegate from Viewmont High School. “We’re actually going out, we’re seeing things. We’re going to the state courthouse, the state capitol, we went to the Air National Guard, so there is a lot more moving than I thought there would be.”
A culminating event each year in Freedom Academy is the speech contest and talent show. Volunteer delegates get to write a speech on the topic of their choice and orate their remarks in front of their peers. Participants of the talent show get to demonstrate their unique abilities both in front of peers and staff. The winners of each event get to perform at the closing ceremony in front of family, friends, peers, and staff.
“I would tell my peers next year that Freedom Academy is gonna be fun,” said Jones. “You’re gonna have a good time. It’s a fun experience.”
Freedom Academy is a program designed to change lives. The week spent at Camp Williams is an unforgettable one that creates lasting memories and a spirit of patriotism and dedication to service. Now 60 years strong, the program is an institution in Utah and looks to expand over the next 60 years.