by Kenny Xu, Young America’s Foundation William & Berniece Grewcock Intern Scholar

At YAF’s 2017 National Conservative Student Conference, hundreds of some of the nation’s most passionate conservative student activists gathered together to learn, engage, and get inspired by conservative leaders.

Sometimes, however, things can work the other way around, too: students can do their own kind of inspiring with their stories, their struggles, and ultimately, their dreams for this country and the world.  Nowhere is this more true than for activists Jorge Jraissati and Robert Marriaga, two students whose passion for free markets exudes from their charisma and determination.  They instantly stood out as uniquely driven individuals, and a lunchtime conversation with the both of them only confirmed this striking first impression.

Jorge, who hails from Venezuela, had experienced firsthand the repression and destructiveness of the dictatorial Maduro government there, which became the motivating factor for him to come to the U.S. and learn how to fight back.

“We don’t have freedom of speech, we don’t have economic freedom either,” Jorge tells me, matter-of-factly. “In the ranking of economic freedom, we are the worst country in the world, even compared with countries like Cuba and Zimbabwe.”

When I asked Jorge what the ideals of America are in comparison to his home country, he doesn’t hesitate: “Liberty, opportunity, equality under the law,” he rattles off almost immediately. “It’s what makes America the greatest country in the world,” Robert adds with conviction.

Robert’s story is filled with gratitude for the country that raised him, the United States. He was born in South Florida to immigrants from Honduras, and watched his family emerge from poverty into the stable working class because of the determination and hard work of his parents.

“The good thing about the United States is that even being in a working class family, you can live [well],” Robert says. “We have cars, we have a house, we have food on the table.  We can travel a little bit… in other countries you wouldn’t have that.”

Yet, both Jorge and Robert anticipate threats to American prosperity, coming in the form of a new wave of socialist attitudes in this country.  Jorge decries the leftward shift among millennials, having experienced the reality of socialism in his own country.

“I remember when Bernie Sanders a few years ago talked about Ecuador and Venezuela as the economies that we should follow, and he’s completely wrong,” he said, with emphasis on the “wrong.”  I was shocked that Sanders would even say such a thing, but it’s true: a simple search on Google reveals that Sanders embraced these countries on his own website as places where “the American Dream is more apt to be realized” than even America itself.

And yet, Jorge also argues that despite Sanders’ economic idiocy, he managed to “touch the hearts” of a disaffected population of Americans with his appearance of authenticity.  This is the kind of model, Jorge says, that Americans should follow. “At the end, we love ideas, we love the free market, but the most important thing is the people,” noted Jorge, encouraging conservatives to do more outreach to these lost communities. Robert agrees.

“Remember that the Americans that fought the American Revolution were people that believed in freedom, not the free market,” he notes.  “As conservatives, it’s the people first, then the free market.”

Robert wants conservatives to embrace the populist energy driven by Donald Trump, rather than skirt it. In this way, he argues, conservatives can truly change the nation – and the world.

“It is my generation’s duty to reconquer liberty,” Jorge says, his voice firm but laden with wistful emotion.