An uncontrollable chatter permeated the ballroom of the historic Mayflower Hotel and filled me with anticipation. The ambiance of the event flowed through the hallways of the venue as blood flows through arteries, pumping life into every corner of the hotel. Ideas, backgrounds, and opinions were exhibited in insightful speeches, and I was there to see it all. The United States Senate Youth Program (USSYP) was an experience like no other. Never had I seen so many accomplished high school upperclassmen and women convene to discuss the world’s most pressing issues and to propose solutions through activism and diverse thoughts.
As I sat down for our first ceremony, the realization of the significance of an event like this came to me. I was one of two in my state selected to partake in a behind-the-scenes tour of our nation’s capital and was given indispensable leadership tools to organize grassroots movements for any cause that stokes my passion.
Similar to what Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia suggested, Washington Week was not only for me. This initiative was for the thousands of other citizens back home who have lost faith in government.
“People will not care about how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said.
Through my experience in many youth organizations, it seems that the government has sparked skepticism among communities because it is perceived to lack genuine concern. Or, perhaps, most assume that the misunderstanding about political practices equates to a lack of transparency.
Contrary to popular belief, the people of Washington are in fact empathetic human beings connected to the people they serve. This underlying conviction was instilled in me when Secretary of the Senate Julie Adams said the most important thing to be successful in this arena is to “stay humble because the people you meet on the way up will be the people you meet on the way down.” Whatever the case, I experienced an amazing reception from our guest speakers, ranging from the Senate Historian to the President of the United States.
In light of recent racial tensions across the country, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough brought forward the subject by reinforcing the idea that there should be “more people of color” in government in order to better represent the country’s ever-changing demographics. On the same note, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Vanita Gupta talked about the extensive work she oversaw in Texas to eradicate the disenfranchisement of minority voters. In a more global focus, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said his mission was to help underdeveloped nations get a “chance to make it to the top” to alleviate the wealth gap.
The electrifying environment of the United States Senate Youth Program filled me with excitement as I stood in the presence of other like-minded students that sought to revolutionize the world as we know it. Standing in the monumental East Room of the White House, a vibrant man with an infectious personality greeted me and my colleagues. After listening to the inspiring words of President Obama, I felt empowered, but was reminded to “worry more about what you want to do rather than what you want to be.” This same idea was echoed at the Supreme Court as Justice Stephen Breyer remarked he “was at the right place at the right time” when nominated to serve his current position.
But regardless of the job one ends up pursuing, it is important to “stay on the payroll to do the job to the best of our ability.” For some, the sky is definitely not the limit because Director of NASA, Charles Bolden, familiarized us with the revamp in innovation for science, space, and technology. Ultimately, the myriad of insights shaped throughout the course of the week and our lives were voiced in the USSYP 2015 Student Town Hall hosted by Brian Lamb on C-SPAN.
Upon meeting the nation’s most promising students, I was truly humbled and exhilarated at the sight of an illuminating future for our country. Recurring images of my dreams and aspirations swept through my thoughts as the day progressed. My underlying motivation has been strengthened. I witnessed not only the power of words but also the discovery of my own passions in public policy. It awakened my senses, crystallized in my mind, and, most importantly, humbled me in an arena where egos can be as large as the problems we attempt to solve through our conversations. I am no longer just another high school student with a malleable and cloudy mind. I am a delegate, a problem solver, and, most importantly, a leader. Developing these life skills is an invaluable asset as I strive to become a leader in public service.
The USSYP was created by Senate Resolution 324 in 1962 and has been sponsored by the Senate and fully funded by the Hearst Foundations since inception. Originally proposed by Senators Kuchel, Mansfield, Dirksen and Humphrey, the impetus for the program as stated in Senate testimony is “to increase young Americans’ understanding of the interrelationships of the three branches of government, learn the caliber and responsibilities of federally elected and appointed officials, and emphasize the vital importance of democratic decision-making not only for America but for people around the world.”
Each year this extremely competitive merit-based program brings 104 of the most outstanding high school students — two from each state, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Education Activity — to Washington, D.C. for an intensive week-long study of the federal government and the people who lead it. The overall mission of the program is to help instill within each class of USSYP student delegates more profound knowledge of the American political process and a lifelong commitment to public service. In addition to the program week, The Hearst Foundations provide each student with a $5,000 undergraduate college scholarship with encouragement to continue coursework in government, history and public affairs. Transportation and all expenses for Washington Week are also provided by The Hearst Foundations; as stipulated in S.Res.324; no government funds are utilized. To learn more about USSYP, visit: ussenateyouth.org.
*Featured/top image: Jocelyn Hernandez meets her fellow Texan delegates for a meeting with Senator John Cornyn. Photo by Jakub Mosur.