United States Senate Youth Program Class of 2020: Profiles of Leadership and Resilience During the Pandemic: Stella Tallmon – Alaska

Alaska 2020 Delegate Stella Tallmon Finds Solace in Nature and Purpose in Volunteering and Education
in the Beautiful Community of Juneau.

We continue our Blog series about the 2020 delegates and how they have been faring since Washington Week was canceled due to the global pandemic. Two outstanding student leaders are selected to serve as USSYP delegates from each state in the nation, as well as the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Education Activity.  Learning of the breadth and beauty of our country as delegates share home state stories and photos is one of the profound gifts of the program.

Alaska delegate Stella Tallmon at the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska

USSYP:   Can you tell us more about where you live and what has been happening in your life since the announcement of the pandemic?

Out of all the things I pictured happening in 2020, this pandemic was never one of them. For the last several years, I’d pictured myself culminating my high school journey on a positive note, graduating, and then heading to college in the fall ready to take on the world. The rapid change to our country’s way of life and sense of normalcy that COVID brought upended all of this. I grew up in Juneau, Alaska, a remote town of 30,000 people and went to Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, a public school of about 500 students that’s known for being the subject of the 2007 Supreme Court case Morse v. Frederick. We abruptly switched to fully online classes in mid-March along with the rest of the nation and seniors were able to briefly come into the school at the end of the year to “graduate,” but walking across the stage in front of only 4 of my family members and no one else felt like a sort of rehearsal for the ceremony I’d been so excited for since my freshman year.

I love Juneau very much, even if it took me many years to realize it. When I was younger, I would complain about the large amounts of rain and the fact that it is only accessible by boat or plane. But the people here are compassionate and the sense of community is unmatched to any other place I’ve been. We have several local glaciers, beautiful mountains, and all the other outdoor wonders that come with living in a temperate rainforest. It’s such an amazing town that I don’t know if I’m prepared to leave the place that has shaped my childhood in immense ways. This pandemic hasn’t let me get a real sense of closure, so I’m just going to take a big leap forward and see what life brings!   

Town of Juneau, straddling the banks of the Gastineau Channel in Alaska’s Inside Passage waterway

USSYP:  Did you have an opportunity to partake in the Washington Week Online sessions, and if so, which speakers and events were most impactful for you?

The online sessions with speakers were an interesting way to learn about various government officials’ careers and advice for us. I watched every session, and my favorite speakers were Senator Tammy Baldwin, Dr. Iman Martin of the National Institutes of Health, and State Department diplomat Alfonso Cortes. They stood out to me with their fascinating career retrospectives, personability, and advice. Hearing from these individuals was very inspiring and helped humanize the image I have of these seemingly all-powerful figures in the U.S. government.

USSYP Democratic Co-Chair Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin speaks with delegates in a Washington Week Online event. © Photo by Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

USSYP:  Technology has made it possible for you to know and be engaged with your fellow 2020 delegates.  Have you formed friendships or special connections?

Although I’ve only known my fellow delegates for about nine months, I can safely say that some of them have become my best friends for life, and knowing them has made me even more determined to meet them in person. The amount of knowledge, support, and wisdom they have given me goes far and above what I’d ever pictured getting out of this program or my high school years in general. Not only are they huge role models to me, they are also the people I know I can lean on and trust with my worries, triumphs, and secrets. In fact, they are probably the biggest reason that I’ve gotten through this pandemic and all the setbacks it’s caused. Eilidh’s calming and encouraging words, Katherine’s reassurances when I feel down, Colby’s dog videos, Arya and Akaash’s friendly banter, Malcolm and Jared’s niche election polls, Bryson’s dance videos, Matthew’s naming his cat after me, Ben’s witty remarks, Ezra’s moose videos and analysis, Arushi’s beautiful writing, and everything else my fellow delegates do to put a smile on my face and have honestly done so much to keep me going throughout all the chaos that’s happened around the world this year. They’ve become my de facto support group during this time.

USSYP:  Has the pandemic had any positive effects in your life? What do you feel you have learned from this experience so far?

Being at home for extended amounts of time with little schoolwork this spring meant that I did a lot of reading and Netflix marathons in addition to hiking with my dogs to make up for the absence of swimming (something I did almost daily before pools closed down). Some of the other delegates introduced me to Avatar: The Last Airbender, and while it’s been a long time since I’ve truly been addicted to an animated TV show, it’s honestly such a masterpiece that appeals to audiences of all ages.

Starting at the end of May, I began the long-overdue journey of educating myself in a more in-depth way on racism and the myriad ways that the color of your skin affects your life, reading books by authors such as Ibram X. Kendi, Jason Reynolds, Bryan Stevenson, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as well as various articles from the New York Times’ 1619 Project- all of which I would highly recommend. I also learned a lot from my fellow delegates, and the diversity of our USSYP group has been very important, as I have been able to learn from so many perspectives that I normally never would have been exposed to as a white person in small-town Alaska.

If I could take away one larger lesson from this, it would be to never take a single thing for granted. I never knew that March 5th would be my last day of high school and that I would never get to say goodbye to kids I’ve been going to school with since we were little. Grappling with the fact that a deadly virus is ravaging our country has been very tough for me, especially when some of my family and friends contracted it. However, I’ve been lucky to not lose anyone to it or contract it myself, so others have gone through so much more. I was so excited for Washington Week that it actually took me a few days to process the fact that it had been canceled, but I now know not to rely on anything and to go with the flow as much as possible. Hopefully we can all become better at living in the moment and appreciating each day as it is.

Perseverance Trail near Juneau, with Stella’s dogs Luna and Nico

USSYP: The pandemic is also a time to show leadership – in your community, through your school, with family and friends. Have there been any instances where your natural inclinations toward leadership and service have shone through?

Like many other people, I’ve had to alter most of the methods I use to push for change during this time. This means that visits to my State Legislature and Congressional delegation’s offices have been replaced by emails and letters, and the lobbying work I usually participate in with various organizations has been shut down. But I’ve done what I can to sign petitions and raise money for causes that I care about in preparation for when things go back to normal.

Recently, I’ve been interning with a political campaign here in Alaska and working with them to contact voters and make sure they know what their options are for absentee and mail-in voting for the primary and general elections. Because voting will look so different this fall, I’m very nervous about turnout in the general election, but I have confidence that groups like these will do everything they can to make sure all eligible voters fulfill their civic duty.

USSYP:  Have you had the opportunity to work with any outside groups, nonprofits or other organizations to affect positive change during this time?

Before I graduated high school, I worked on some service-type projects with some of the clubs I was a member of. As a part of the National Honor Society and Student Council, I wrote letters of encouragement to senior citizens and grocery store employees, since they are so vulnerable right now and likely to not have much outside support. We were able to organize large letter and artwork drives that hopefully helped some people out a little bit because it’s especially important right now to be as empathetic and kind as possible – you never know what other people are going through.

As someone who regularly attends and organizes rallies and other in-person activities to push for change, the shift to digital work has been quite strange for me! I was able to go to some outdoor protests for racial equality in May and June, which were amazingly transformative, but the rest of my work has been in the form of petitions and letter-writing campaigns since it’s the safest option all-around. I can’t wait to get back on the ground when this is all over!

Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé

USSYP:  Please tell us about your plans for college this fall. Has the experience of the pandemic changed any of your original thoughts for your future?

I wish I could say that the college admissions process was an easy one, but that would be like saying pigs could fly.  After being rejected from 10 of the 16 schools I applied to, I had to re-evaluate my criteria for choosing a school and make the best decision I could without being able to visit any of them. I eventually settled on Kenyon College in rural Ohio, which will certainly be an adventure because I’ve never been to the Midwest! As I write this in mid-August, I’m able to go there in-person during the fall but not the spring, but I’m trying to be as prepared as I can be for a sudden shift to online like so many other schools have been making recently.

My intended areas of study (political science, history, and Arabic) are still the same, but I’ll admit that I’ve become more interested in public health lately and hope to take a class or two focusing on it at some point. And in the spirit of USSYP and public service, I intend to stay in the field of government for my career and do what I can to make other people’s lives better.

Learn more about the name of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé

For more on Morse v. Frederick