Virtual field trip to Reagan Leadership Academy

NHS introduced to real-life scenario for presidential cabinet


When distance learning was announced in May, we scrambled for ways to build a community online. For classes and clubs alike, it was difficult to do so, especially within the National Honor Society, a coveted community service-based club at Pinole Valley High School.

To establish a virtual community with a new cohort of honor society students, we looked to ways to go on field trips because we were unable to tour colleges due to COVID-19 restrictions. We eventually found our way to the Virtual Field Trip offered by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute in Southern California. 

During the virtual field trip, we became oval office cabinet members and got a taste of what it is like to be president. If you were taking AP U.S. Government or American Government, it was helpful to experience how a president might make decisions. Students were able to work on a high school-level leadership simulation with staff from the Ronald Reagan Leadership Academy in determining some of the ideas and decisions that former President Reagan took when he was in office. 

The Leadership Academy introduced us to a real-life scenario on the Caribbean island of Grenada where the president and his inner circle had to scope out important decisions because a group of American medical students was trapped by a rebel government on the communist island country amid Cold War political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.

It was up to us to determine the next move.

We had agreements and disagreements in the group, which meant that we had to unify our thoughts to find the best solution. It was a great team-building and leadership experience for many honor society members.

In my group, we had to decide to bring the military onto Grenada to rescue the American medical students. In our decision, we had disagreements on our stances. We chose to bring a small military force onto the island. That, however, became a fatal move.

In this situation, we learned about the First Amendment of the Constitution and the freedoms granted to us. The press discovered our plan to bring a military force onto Grenada, and made us susceptible to a military loss. Despite the consequences of publicity, it was the right of the press to publicize the information in order to notify families of the medical students trapped on the island.

With the example of the First Amendment brought up during the simulation, it reminded me of my time back in AP U.S. Government with Alison Wood, where we explored President Nixon and his administration’s sticky situation with the Pentagon Papers, a highly controversial report regarding covering-ups of the Vietnam War. The administration had tried to discredit and restrict the release of the documents to the media. But the Supreme Court dictated that the government had no right to place a prior restraint on publication, which would infringe on rights granted by the First Amendment. Luckily for Reagan, he did follow in Nixon’s footsteps. 

In the simulation, a reporter came to our “oval office” or in other words, Zoom breakout room, and explained the reasoning for choosing to release our valuable information to the public, as it was their right to have access to both freedoms of press and speech. Nicole Bravo, a Pinole Valley sophomore, asked the reporter, “Why did you report the story? Why did you let the Grenadians know our plan?”

Matthias Gabel, a senior, said “it was unexpected at first as I didn’t realize I was going to be president, and I thought it was nerve-racking but I thought it was pretty good so far. I learned to choose between tough decisions and it was helpful having advisors agree with my ideas.”

Many honor society members and chaperones (thanks to Principal Kibby Kleiman, International Baccalaureate Coordinator Dayna Dibble, and language teacher Theresa Elliott for joining in the fun) thought the field trip was both fun and an interesting experience.

At the end of the field trip, we experienced a virtual tour of a grounded Air Force One and a little sneak peek at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Grounds with staff from the library. We saw how Air Force One was structured when President Reagan was in office. It was cramped compared to today’s planes. The Boeing 707 was designed to seat more than 100 passengers but was retrofitted to meet the president’s needs — everything from a command center to a galley stocked with cakes for celebrating birthdays and special occasions. 

The Leadership Academy also provided us a taste of the real world by showing us that we pay for these airplanes at roughly $5 billion apiece. Though most students don’t file taxes yet, we do pay sales tax on most items we buy — pies from MOD Pizza or Black Friday clothing purchases.

From the Virtual Field Trip we were able to gain a sense of the realities of making decisions; it’s not about making the right or wrong decisions, but how you come to those specific decisions. At the same time, it gave honor society members to meet one another and understand the various perspectives we have. The honor society plans to do more virtual field trips, hopefully in person if conditions become safe.