Alaska Delegates Lucas Arthur and Kiera O’Brien with Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan at the 2016 USSYP Annual Senate Reception
Alaska students must make a long journey to attend Washington Week. In fact, to be assured of arriving for the official start time of the program, Alaska delegates usually have to miss school and fly a day early, as they have to change planes at least once, and sometimes more than that depending on how far they live from a major city in their state. But the long journey is more than physical. Read on to learn how our 2016 delegates Lucas Arthur and Kiera O’Brien felt about their USSYP experience.
Please tell us about your high school experience growing up in Alaska and how your Senate Youth Program experience built upon that.
Lucas: Living in Alaska, I’ve had a thorough and extensive education, however, I’ve always felt somewhat isolated academically. During Washington Week, I found myself suddenly immersed in a refreshing dialogue about politics and all manner of other things for the first time as I began to connect with my USSYP peers (possibly at the detriment of my schoolwork.)
Kiera: I grew up on an island in Southeast Alaska. I had the same classmates for 13 years, and very little exposure to political activism and engagement due to our isolated location. My parents and my AP Government teacher fostered my interest in politics, and my school counselor encouraged me to apply for USSYP. At home, I lacked politically-minded peers. In my fellow delegates I found the community I was looking for.
I felt at home as soon as I arrived in Washington, D.C. That’s because I knew the people who’d be arriving soon after me were my friends already. We were interested in the same things, and no, we didn’t always agree, but over the course of the preceding three months, all 104 of us had participated in dynamic virtual discussions in a group chat.
Do you have a teacher or mentor who was instrumental in your decision to apply to USSYP or for fostering your interest in politics or public service?
Lucas: Instrumental for my selection to the Senate Youth Program was my experience with Student Government at the local and state level, and integral to that experience is my Student Government advisor, Ms. Barbara Jackson. Ms. Jackson has provided the necessary support for running an effective student government, but for me she is more than that. Every day at lunch I make my way to her classroom where we have political discussions and look over the latest New York Times articles. It is largely due to our conversations that I’ve maintained an interest in politics and public policy and without them I would have been in no way prepared for Washington Week.
Do you keep in touch with your fellow USSYP 2016 delegates? If so, how and how often?
Kiera: Those discussions that began prior to Washington Week continue today and have grown to include multiple small group chats centered around common interests. For example, I’m a part of a group chat of USSYP 2016 alums who are all going to be attending Harvard in the fall. Beyond the group chat, we also regularly do group google hangouts, which is like facetime, but for multiple people. These are just a couple of ways we stay close. The real treat is knowing that no matter what state I’m in, I have a friend there. And whenever we’re nearby, we organize reunions.
Lucas: Since just over a week after I found out that I had been selected for the U.S. Senate Youth Program, I have been in the 2016 delegates’ famous home-grown group chat. From day one we have been very active, and after a day off of the chat it wasn’t uncommon to have over 1000 missed messages. Now, months later, the group chat is still active, although not at its peak. I also have several close friends whom I talk to on an almost daily basis, many of whom I expect to remain close with for years to come.
What was your personal highlight in terms of speakers or leaders you met during Washington Week?
Lucas: I have always been a science nerd, and unlike many of the participants in the Senate Youth Program, my interest in science exceeds my interest in politics. So, for me, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was the most compelling speaker with whom I was able to interact. I made sure that I selected a seat for lunch at the same table as Administrator Bolden, and we had many intriguing discussions on the future of space exploration and emerging technologies.
What are your future goals and how did USSYP impact or shape them?
Kiera: During Washington Week and in the time spent getting to know my fellow delegates before and after the week itself, it was clear to me I was among the best and the brightest. Objectively, this was demonstrated when 8 students, myself included, were admitted to Harvard College. Growing up in a rural, island community in Alaska, an Ivy League education wasn’t on my radar. I had planned on attending a small college on the West Coast and had only applied to Harvard on a whim. After we were admitted, we talked in the group chat about our options. For me, this connection was life-changing. Realizing that as many as 7 of my favorite people to talk to could be my classmates in the fall gave me the courage to commit to a rigorous school and moving across the country. For that courage, and for all the doors that choice has subsequently opened, I have USSYP and my fellow delegates to thank.
I’m currently living in Washington, D.C., interning in the office of Senator Dan Sullivan, the junior senator from Alaska. When I met the senator at the USSYP Senate Reception he encouraged me to apply for this position, and being able to have that inroad, getting to meet him, but also having the Senate Youth Program vouch for me through my selection for Washington Week, was a great connection to have. After every interesting experience I’ve had on the job in the past few weeks, my first thought is always to tell my friends from USSYP. There are a handful of us working in D.C. this summer, most of us on the Hill, either interning or paging, and one in the White House, and knowing I have someone familiar to grab lunch with is nice.
Just this morning I ran into a California delegate and Senate page on my commute to work! Being here in D.C., first for Washington Week, and now for work, has reaffirmed that I want to dedicate my life to public service, and I can’t wait to see where that takes me. After my internship this summer, I’m heading to Harvard to study government, and I can honestly say that would not be the case if it weren’t for USSYP.