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Behind the scenes: A look into the USSYP delegate experience


The Washington Week Experience – Is it for you?

It is both commonality and diversity that make Washington Week such a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Student leaders from different backgrounds and geographic locales come together in our nation’s capital to share their passion for public service. During the week-long exchange of ideas between speakers and delegates and among the delegates themselves, the students’ intellectual horizons are widened, and their commitment to using their many talents to make an impact on their communities and beyond is deepened.

Application season for USSYP 2018 has kicked off, and you can read below our 2017 delegates’ reflections on the memorable Washington Week experience. If you can relate, and if you qualify, be sure to apply! Please learn more at or review our brochure.

Reflections from the Midwest:

As Senator Cory Booker stated in his speech to us, the 55th Annual United States Senate Youth Program, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” We are forever bonded by this program, and I’m sure we will go on to do great things in life.

Shawn Park (2017 – IL), University of Chicago, Class of 2021



There is one song from the critically acclaimed musical Hamilton that I believe encapsulates Washington Week, “The Room Where It Happens.” In this song, Aaron Burr laments his inability to be involved in political negotiations and backdoor deals, always viewing politics from the outside. And while opportunities like meeting the chief justice are perhaps not analogous to the shady arrangements made under the table that Lin Manuel Miranda lionizes, they do represent the incomparability of the Senate Youth Program, which promises — and delivers — a look at Washington from within.

Kathy Min (2017 – ID), Yale University, Class of 2021

 The conversation that ignited the spark in me the most was the one that I shared with my senator, Heidi Heitkamp. I had the opportunity to eat dinner with her at the National Archives building and I can say with confidence that the time that I shared with Senator Heitkamp was the highlight of my week and will serve as the greatest motivation moving forward in pursuing my career goals. It is easy for us to read about and watch our lawmakers go about their daily lives and perceive them as a figure who seems larger than life, but having the opportunity to share a meal and a conversation with a United States senator really put her journey and her current, esteemed position into perspective. Senator Heitkamp reminded me that possible and easy are not synonymous, but neither are challenging and impossible. Her message of resilience and hard work motivates me to emulate the same passion that she has for our nation and its citizens. I was honored to give Senator Heitkamp’s introduction speech and am proud to have represented the North Dakota that we both call home. 

Alyx Schmitz (2017 – ND), University of Jamestown, Class of 2021

I am a product of my culture and my values. As an only child of Indian immigrants, I imbibed Gandhi’s principles of seva (service) and satya (honesty), all while embracing beliefs of individuality and determination from the country that embraced my parents and me.  An aspiring public servant, this program served as the perfect platform for me to share the confluence of my background, experiences, and values with students across the nation, while being exposed to those of my peers.

Rushi Patel (2017 – IN), Harvard University, Class of 2021

Reflections from the Mid-Atlantic

Of course, no Washington Week would have been complete without a visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Meeting the president and vice president was undoubtedly an honor and opportunity of a lifetime, but walking down the White House halls was simply overwhelming. Standing in the Blue Room, looking out at the towering Washington Monument, with the portraits of John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and past presidents lining the walls, I was deeply moved and humbled by the weight of the president’s office and of the history around me.

Ryan Zhang (2017 – NJ), Harvard University, Class of 2021

The highlight of my week was when I had the honor of introducing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room at the State Department. The confidence the program has in high school juniors and seniors to formulate our own remarks, never reviewed by the program, is something we rarely encounter in our everyday lives. As a student captivated by the diplomatic happenings of the world around me, especially with my family background in Syria, meeting and introducing the secretary of state is a moment I will remember my entire life.

Joseph Touma (2017 – WV), Duke University, Class of 2021 

Reflections from the Northeast

As delegates of the U.S. Senate Youth Program we were facilitated by distinguished members of our military who played the role of the most overqualified camp counselors ever. I had never had extensive interactions with members of our military so I was not sure exactly what to expect. I could not have asked for anything better. The phrase “Military Mentor” is not simply employed as a clever use of alliteration, these men and women were genuine leaders and role models. They not only gave me a personal insight into work in the military, but also allowed me to see some of the incredible leaders who have devoted their life to service.

A.J. Braverman (2017 – VT), Brown University, Class of 2021

The United States Senate Youth Program’s Washington Week gave me a lot of hope for the future. While sitting at lunch one day during the week I thought to myself, “The 104 of us right here are the future of our government, and when the time comes, we’ll be ready for it.” At the end of Washington Week, we were no longer Democrats or Republicans. We were brothers, sisters, and Americans. When politics is brother against brother, sister against sister, or “us vs. them”, we all lose, but as long as the 104 of us have something to say about it, this level of division will no longer be the status quo of American politics.

Dennis Ruprecht, Jr. (2017 – NH), University of New Hampshire, Class of 2021

Reflections from the Northwest

The Military Mentors, while a component that from the outside may not appear to be something that would make a huge difference in the program, do. All of the mentors were not only highly decorated, but also relatable. All of the mentors seemed just as excited and proud to be a part of Washington Week as the delegates were. Learning about the different experiences that led the mentors to go into the military and the experiences they had since joining was just as impactful as the speakers. They all had an enthusiasm for learning as much as they could during Washington Week, and I am assuming that they carry that same work ethic and desire for knowledge in their careers. I feel like my interactions with the Military Mentors helped me gain a new level of appreciation for those who serve our country in the military.

Chloe Dulaney (2017 – WA), University of Washington, Class of 2021

While the people and places we went impressed me, what I will take with me for the rest of my life is what I learned about myself throughout the week. This was aided by the conversations and interactions I had with other delegates. Being able to talk to a collection of some of the most accomplished high school students from across the nation allowed me to reflect upon my own achievements and strengths. The lasting friendships I made during the Senate Youth Program are invaluable as well. Everyone was able and willing to eloquently state their own political tendencies and beliefs, which caused me to refine my own beliefs and build off what others said.

Craig Robertson (2017 – WA), University of Washington, Class of 2021

Reflections from Department of Defense Education Activity

I have done a lot of programs with a lot of different organizations, all of which claim that their program is “A Week That Will Change Your Life,” but this program did not change my life. Rather, it reaffirmed my desire to go into public service and serve my country through politics. The speakers I heard from made me believe I could make a difference, and the student delegates I met encouraged me to seek even more ways to get engaged with my community and enact changes desperately needed in our society.

John Casey (2017 – DOD Germany), University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2021

A person can read newspaper articles on newly passed bills or watch C-SPAN endlessly on the proceedings of a session in Congress to gain insight into the workings of the United States government and how it functions. But, this is a view on the outside looking in and not the same as walking the halls of government and seeing how government really operates on the inside. Meeting senators and having face-to-face candid, real-life discussions not only altered my perception of the government, but inspired me have an optimistic outlook of the United States as a whole. USSYP gave me the opportunity to actually meet and converse with people who have changed the world through their contributions.

Emma Rook (2017 – DOD Turkey), Brown University, Class of 2021

Reflections from the South

Senator Cory Booker remains the most memorable speaker to me. He left us with a powerful message: “You’re walking around like you hit a triple, but you were born on third base. You eat food at the banquet prepared by your ancestors. You sit in the shade of trees that you did not plant, and you drink water from a well that you did not dig.” He helped me recognize all of the sacrifices everyone has made to get me where I am today. I walk away from this program a changed man. I gained insight and gratitude, and above all, I gained determination. I may not be able to pay my ancestors back, but I will pay them forward. Together, the delegates of the 55th annual Washington Week will change the world.

Braeden Foldenauer (2017 – MS), Harvard University, Class of 2021

My fellow delegates taught me so much, but one of the most important lessons I learned was how to have civil discourse. With mutual respect and a willingness to listen without being quick to criticize, even the most sensitive of hot button issues can be discussed. Civil discourse has been pushed to the fringes in current politics, but these friends have shown me that it can be restored.

Douglas Stewart (2017 – SC), Clemson University, Class of 2021

Reflections from the Southwest                                                                                            

I left Washington Week hopeful, reassured, and excited for the years to come; for the years I get to see my fellow delegates working as senators with courage and passion like Senator Heitkamp, as nonprofit leaders casting a blanket of kindness, understanding, and love over the world like Mark Shriver, as truth-revealing reporters like Bob Schieffer, or even as the president or vice president of the United States of America.

Lauren Lim (2017 – NV), University of Nevada, Reno, BS/MD Class of 2024 

Though I could easily populate the pages of several novels with words reliving my experiences with the Senate Youth Program, if I were forced to describe Washington Week and its impact upon my public service future in one word, I would choose “Matrahin”, which means limitless in Bengali.

Amira Chowdhury (2017 – CA), Rising High School Senior


Photos by Erin Lubin and Jakub Mosur

Spotlight on our 2017 Senate Co-Chairs: 2017 Co-Chair Keynote with Senator Heitkamp at the National Archives

Senator Heidi Heitkamp with North Dakota delegates Ashlen Wright (left) and Alyx Schmitz (right)

Standing before the original founding charters of the United States in the magnificent rotunda of the National Archives, the United States Senate Youth Program 2017 Democratic Co-Chair Senator Heidi Heitkamp captured the profundity and resplendence of the moment. “The greatest blessing you have, other than your family, is that you are born in this country with this document,” she said, pointing to the Constitution. “It has survived the test of time and forms the basis of our social compact.” Senator Heitkamp, the first female senator elected from North Dakota, relayed her life’s story, beginning with her humble upbringing alongside six brothers and sisters in a very small town. She brimmed with emotion telling the students of the lifelong commitment to education that her hardworking parents instilled in her and her siblings.

Through her intense work ethic and determination and her parents’ sacrifice, she headed to college and then law school. At age 28, Senator Heitkamp ran for a first statewide office but did not win. “Life doesn’t always ensure victories, but every opportunity that you seize and take a chance on will change your life’s trajectory.” In her run for the U.S. Senate, she had low odds of winning in a state that was leaning heavily Republican. Senator Heitkamp then revealed a moment from her past when her physician gave her only a 28% chance of surviving a cancer diagnosis. She said “People will give you your chances your whole life. Only you know what you can and cannot do. Only you know the possibilities of your life.”

Given her broad policy background and current service on five Senate committees, Senator Heitkamp easily shifted from one legislative area to another as delegates posed questions on gun control, the Dakota pipeline, the ‘glass ceiling’ and education reform. She encouraged her young audience to be politically active as soon as possible, “I want to put in a pitch for all levels of diversity, whether it is racial, religious or ethnic. I think the one diversity we often lack in public life is age. We don’t have enough young people who are willing to step up and present. How you see the world, and what you see the world becoming is incredibly important, so you’re never too young to seek the challenge of service and serving.”

North Dakota delegate Ashlen Wright, in thanking the senator, offered a reflection on the group’s earlier experience at the United States Institute of Peace, stating, “conflict resolved with dialogue and progress made with consensus is often more successful than when it’s not. That message has been lived by Senator Heidi Heitkamp. She is a role model for us in these contentious times. May her dignity and grace inspire us to reach compromise and make successful progress for the future.”

Senator Heitkamp’s rapport with delegates was also described by a 2017 North Carolina delegate, Joseph Chong as he reflected on sitting near the senator under the Rotunda of the Archives, saying “Only two seats away from Senator Heitkamp at the table, I felt humbled to be in the presence of a prestigious senator and the Co-Chair for the program. As dinner was served, she prompted a conversation with me, asking me about my interests and career aspirations. I was honest with her, explaining I was interested in practicing politics but unsure because of the stigma surrounding politicians. She asked what type of job I was thinking about pursuing, and I explained to her I wanted to become a lawyer to fight for equitable education. She nodded and responded with a smile that my answer was a perfect path to politics, explaining that I didn’t say I wanted to become a senator or the president; rather, my answer was to serve the people. From that instant, I immediately knew that I wanted to pursue a career in public service and government.”

Delegate Tel Wittmer of Kansas also felt inspired, saying “Among the many great speakers we had the opportunity to listen to throughout the week, one of my favorites included hearing Senator Heidi Heitkamp speak in the rotunda of the National Archives.  In her remarks, she emphasized political courage and left me inspired with her love for America and the people she serves.”

Photos by Erin Lubin and Jakub Mosur












Spotlight on our 2017 Senate Co-Chairs: Opening dinner with Senator Roger F. Wicker

Senator Roger F. Wicker with 2017 United States Senate Youth Program delegates from Mississippi, Braeden Foldenauer (left) and Cade Slaughter (right).

The 2017 United States Senate Youth Program Republican Co-Chair Senator Roger F. Wicker is in his second term in the U.S. Senate. He truly exemplifies a life of public service. Before becoming a senator, he was elected seven times to the U.S. House representing Mississippi’s First Congressional District, served in the Mississippi State Legislature, and was on active duty in the U.S. Air Force and the Air Force Reserve, retiring in 2004 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

What became apparent during the opening dinner of Washington Week 2017, is that this senior member of the Republican leadership team is also a passionate student of history. Taking the microphone off the podium and moving deftly among the delegates, Senator Wicker began by peppering them with questions about key dates: 1492, 1776, 1787. The students had no problem with these. But, he said, “They get harder – 1783?” This was the year George Washington resigned his commission as general of the Continental Army, he told them, establishing civilian control of the military and flatly rejecting the assumption of anything like the monarchal title of king. “Washington basically said, ‘We haven’t fought this whole time just to have another king. We are different over here, and here our people are going to choose their leaders.’ This was really an astounding thing that nobody else was doing anywhere in the world at that time.”

Key Latin phrases were on the docket next: E pluribus unum, Annuit coeptis and Novus ordo seclorum were eagerly deciphered. The last phrase, translated as “A new order of the age” held the senator’s focus. He admired the audacity of the Founders who said “’We are the order of the new age’. When you go to the monuments and to the Capitol, and see the symbols of our great history, remember that we are quite fortunate to stand on the shoulders of remarkable people, who decided to do things differently – who decided to let the people speak – now, people in every corner of the world yearn to have something like the new order that we set forward in 1787.”

The senator’s first question from the audience reflected the Latin lesson, noting that our nation seems more “pluribus” than “unum” in the current polarized environment. Senator Wicker hoped that when all is said and done, we will all identify as American, finding common ground. He shared his insight from the international perspective he gains as chair of both the Helsinki Commission and the Seapower Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Relaying his efforts to eradicate tropical diseases as part of the Malaria No More organization, he recalled being in Tanzania in 2015 and seeing large banners praising President George W. Bush for early U.S. AIDS relief programs which “saved millions of lives and made me proud. ” Efforts like this are “A way to tell the world that we mean to do good.” But, he cautioned, we can only be a strong leader in the world if our own house is in order. “The things that we do about our economy, the decisions we make about our budget, do affect our ability to be a shining light for the rest of the world.” He ended pragmatically, after again congratulating the delegates, “So I choose to think that we can take care of business at home and take care of our citizens, but as the superpower in the world, we have no choice but to think on an international basis, and to realize that we’re part of its leadership.”

Mississippi delegate Braeden Foldenauer, who had the opportunity to introduce his home state senator to fellow delegates, reflected on the impact of Washington Week’s inspirational speakers, saying “Before my time in Washington, I often found myself caught up in cynicism, wondering to myself if I could actually affect change hailing from rural Mississippi. As a first-generation college student, I felt like my options were limited, but Washington Week illuminated the world for me. I walked away with passion coursing through my veins, and my experience made me ready to tackle the world head on. What was once fear and apprehension is now enthusiasm and a burning desire to go out and make an impact.”

© Photos by Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

Alumni Spotlight – Nevada delegate creates legislation for financial literacy education

In the Nevada Senate Chambers, Evan Gong (left) stands with  Nevada State Senator Joyce Woodhouse and Kyle Walker, another member of the Nevada Youth Legislature involved in the legislation.

Recent alum Evan Gong (NV-2015) brought his Washington Week experience directly into the real world political arena. He crafted legislation designed to improve financial literacy education in his state and recently had his bill pass the Nevada State Senate and become law. Read on to learn what motivated Evan and the lessons he learned rolling his up his sleeves to bring his idea to fruition.

USSYP: How did you become interested in financial literacy for youth?

Evan: I’ve always been interested in business-related topics from an early age. However, I was particularly inspired to elevate the issue after completing an internship with a financial advisor. During the course of my internship, I encountered people who had no idea about what they needed to do in order to achieve their financial goals and others who were struggling with debt. I realized that this illustrated a broader, insidious problem – money is all too often a shunned topic and many people are not taught the tools to build a healthy financial lifestyle.

I was fortunate to be able to address the issue as a member of the Nevada Youth Legislature, a unique civics program in our state that allows young people to propose real legislation and gives them direct access to elected officials. I brought the issue to my state senator, Joyce Woodhouse, and she enthusiastically offered to sponsor the idea as a bill and graciously included me in the entire process.

USSYP: How did you build a coalition for your legislation?

Evan: During the process of extensively researching the issue, weighing policy recommendations and garnering support for the bill, I reached out to several key stakeholders, including the Nevada Bankers’ Association, the Clark County School District, the Nevada Department of Education and the Nevada Council on Economic Education. These initial stakeholders were instrumental to recruiting other supporters and testifying in support of the bill.

USSYP: How did the original iteration of the bill differ from how it came out of Committee? 

Evan: We made several amendments to the bill over the past three years. When we first introduced it in 2014, we proposed to integrate financial literacy into the mathematics standards. However, upon consultation with various stakeholders, we found that it was more prudent to enable the education officials to determine best placement. Other extraneous political factors also complicated the passage and the bill failed in 2015. However, Senator Woodhouse re-sponsored the bill in the next legislative session, expanding age-appropriate financial literacy curriculum to students in elementary school, adding economics as a required subject, and including an appropriation. Governor Brian Sandoval signed the bill, Senate Bill 249, on June 8, 2017!

USSYP: Will the proposal be both authorized and funded now that it has been enacted?

Evan: Yes, there is a $1.5 million appropriation to enable purchase of curriculum materials and enhance teacher training.

USSYP: What are the key lessons you learned during this process?

Evan: I was naturally disappointed when the bill did not make it out of the Senate in 2015. But in such a political environment, this can often occur. However, the important factor was that we did not give up. We proposed a much more solid version two years later, adding in funding and expanding the scope of personal finance. In the interim, I was able to consult more stakeholders, resulting in more input, and more support.

Senator Woodhouse and Evan Gong after having presented the bill before the Nevada Youth Legislature

USSYP: Have there been supporters or mentors who have helped you along the way?

Evan: I am extremely grateful to retired Senator Valerie Wiener, who founded the Nevada Youth Legislature, for her sage mentorship. She served three terms as a legislator and was integral to helping me formulate the idea to bring to Senator Joyce Woodhouse. I am also thankful to Senator Woodhouse for her sponsorship of the bill and unwavering support, Ray Specht of the Nevada Bankers’ Association for his dedication in lobbying and building a coalition for the bill, and Chris Nolan of the Nevada Council on Economic Education for his important input. Special thanks as well to officials at the Clark County School District and Nevada Department of Education.

USSYP: Did your USSYP experience impact your decision to pursue this work?

Evan: Although I started this project before attending USSYP, my experience during Washington Week solidified my desire to pursue a path in public service and encouraged me to press on with my work on the bill, despite the initial failure in 2015.

USSYP: What is the most gratifying aspect of having this bill passed?

Evan: I think the most gratifying and humbling feeling of the whole experience is knowing that my work will have a significant impact on my community and state for years to come. If this policy can help just one person avoid the vicious spiral of debt or inspire a young person to invest in a Roth IRA, I’d consider the time and effort completely worthwhile.

Alumni Spotlight

Janelle Kuroda (center) with Elizabeth Hansen (ID-2012) Audra Morrow (RI-2012) during Washington Week, 2012 (photo courtesy of Audra Morrow)

We are honored to feature Lieutenant Commander Janelle Kuroda (HI – 1997) in the Alumni Spotlight blog. Janelle is an Alumna of USSYP as well as a three-time Military Mentor serving in 2006, 2007 and 2012. In her path since Washington Week, she has served the United States in many critical roles. We are delighted to share her inspiring story with you. We would note that her interview responses do not reflect those of the U.S. government or the U.S Department of State.

USSYP: By way of introduction, can you tell us about your childhood?

Janelle: I grew up in a close-knit, rural town on the Big Island of Hawaii. It was a great experience. There was a strong sense of community and people took care of each other.  I’m still in touch with my high school teachers and classmates today. Although I grew up in a loving family, I quickly witnessed the challenges communities can face. Through a college internship within the local court system, I learned about the prevalence of synthetic drugs, the consequences of drug-related crimes and the destructiveness of domestic violence in my town.

Years later, through my work at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), I was fortunate to have the opportunity to partner with foreign governments to develop programs on drug demand reduction and to empower men and women in law enforcement to address domestic violence. I was proud and honored to help deal with the issues that we often struggle with in our own communities.

USSYP: Where did you attend college? What were your academic and professional highlights?

Janelle: I attended the University of Hawaii at Hilo, where I studied political science, served as the vice president of the student body and participated in our Model UN Team. I am grateful for the excellent internship opportunities I had at our state legislature and in the district and circuit courts – these were all excellent experiences that prepared me for the rigor of law school at Boston College.

Janelle Kuroda with Lao high school students at a ceremony highlighting the contribution of computers and educational material to the Lao Commission for Drug Control and Supervision as part of a U.S. Department of State INL drug demand reduction program. (March 26, 2015)

USSYP: What is your current professional role? What are your activities in that role?

Janelle: I am a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). In this role, I advance U.S. government foreign policy objectives on combatting corruption in international and regional anticorruption bodies such as the United Nations, the G-7, and G-20. I also manage U.S. foreign assistance in programs that help countries prevent and fight corruption, which is vital to level the playing field for U.S. businesses overseas and to protect U.S. national security.

USSYP: What is the mission of the INL?

Janelle: The INL works to keep Americans safe at home by countering international crime and illegal drugs, which breed instability abroad. INL programs help countries set up and maintain just and fair systems by strengthening their police, courts, and corrections systems. INL also promotes the establishment and implementation of international standards to combat transnational organized crime, corruption, wildlife trafficking, and other cross-border crimes. These efforts reduce the amount of crime and illegal drugs reaching U.S. shores and help protect U.S. and global economies.

USSYP: What are you involved with outside of your work?

Janelle: Outside of my work at the U.S. Department of State, I serve as a judge advocate (uniformed attorney) in the U.S. Navy Reserve JAG Corps. I am currently assigned to a civil litigation unit at the Washington Navy Yard, and it’s a great way for me to serve our country in another capacity. As a reservist, I have been able to seamlessly support and contribute to the Navy, to include providing legal assistance services to sailors and their families in Italy, and providing ethics advice to commands in Afghanistan and Bahrain.

USSYP: How did USSYP impact your path?

Janelle: USSYP played an important role in my career aspirations and development. I vividly remember Washington Week – it was an incredible way to experience the role of our federal government first-hand through the perspective of our highest public servants. Interacting with members of the armed forces for the first time and meeting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff played a role in my desire to join the military after law school. The remarkable opportunity to hear from U.S. State Department officials piqued my interest in foreign affairs. Today, I’m privileged to work with and among these distinguished individuals, and use the lessons they shared on diplomacy and statecraft in my work at INL.

Over the course of my career, it’s truly been rewarding to be a part of the Washington Week experience for current USSYP delegates through my service as a military mentor, most recently 2012, by hosting a table at the U.S. Department of State luncheon during Washington Week and by participating in the mentoring events organized by the U.S. Senate Youth Alumni Association.

USSYP: Looking back on USSYP, what was most memorable?

Janelle: The entire experience was incredibly uplifting. It was wonderful to meet students from across America and to learn about different perspectives on pressing issues of the day, such as affirmative action and balancing the federal budget. It was also great to see the group evolve during Washington Week. We shared our dreams and goals, and by the end of the week, they seemed to be much more tangible.