Editor's note: Grace Hutapea, a junior at St. John's School, writes about attending the Junior State of America program for high school students at Princeton University this summer.

I first heard about Junior State of America when I was a freshman. Hearing about an intensive, politically oriented, summer program nearly 10,000 miles away from home was daunting.

It wasn’t until the middle of my sophomore year, after hearing of the strong contention over our current political administration, that I decided I wanted to learn more about politics and apply to the JSA summer program at Princeton University.

After being accepted, I found the months leading to my arrival on campus to be terrifying. There were scenarios that played out in my head of how hard classes would be, how smart my classmates might be and overall how unprepared I was. It wasn’t until meeting my down-to-earth and funny roommates that I realized that this program would be not only academically stimulating but also a chance to meet people. After completing JSA, I can confidently say I had a taste of the college experience, a chance to meet people from various backgrounds, and an opportunity to spread the knowledge I have with those around me.

First of all, my time in JSA’s summer program provided me with an idea of what college life would be like. I took the AP macroeconomics course and the mandatory debate workshop. There were three two-hour classes a day six days a week for three weeks. In addition to my economics class, the program consisted of daily homework, one research paper, a project, a midterm and a final exam. Saying the workload was heavy is an understatement. However, with the amount of free time I had daily, it was manageable and gave me, personally, an accurate idea of what college would be like.

One of the greatest things about JSA is the opportunity to meet people from around the country and the world. During prep week, prior to the JSA summer program, which was offered to only U.S. territories and freely associated states, I shared a room with girls from the Marshall Islands and the Virgin Islands. After prep week, I was shared a room with girls from California, Florida and Saipan.

Although classes took up a large part of our day, there was a fair amount of free time, which we spent walking around campus, playing in the quad, or working on assignments. We also had the privilege of going to the United Nations headquarters in New York and attending a Speakers Day in Philadelphia.

Thanks to those classes, the free time and those day trips, I became friends with so many people. I can proudly say I have lifelong friends from American Samoa, California, the Federated States of Micronesia, Florida, France, the Marshall Islands, Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands.

One of the most important things I’ve taken away from my experience is that I have a voice in my community. The program taught me that my opinion matters and that I have the ability to speak up on how I feel. Although it may sometimes feel like I am alone, I am not. How, what and if I choose to use my voice is entirely up to me and this applies to everyone. I felt small knowing that I come from a 200-square-mile island when there were people who lived and grew up in gorgeous places in big cities, but I learned that what I say does carry weight and impacts those around me. Keeping this in mind, I hope to bring this with me throughout my life and to never forget that I have a voice.

Boarding a plane to New Jersey to attend a summer program at one of the most prestigious universities in the country was extremely nerve-wracking. I didn’t know what exactly I was up against, but I can easily say I had an amazing time there. Through the JSA summer program, I learned what life was like as a college student and was able to create lasting friendships with people from around the world. But most importantly, I learned that my voice matters. I can’t recommend this program enough to anyone interested, and I hope that my experience encourages others to attend JSA.

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