Each year, the U.S. Senate Youth Program asks two sitting senators, one from each party, to serve as active Co-Chairs, each committing to an evening keynote speaking event that gives the students a rare chance to hear personal stories and career and life advice from some of the most influential elected officials in the country. Co-Chairs have used humor, rousing enthusiasm, quiet personal reflection and lessons from our nation’s past founders and leaders to inspire and educate. The delegates are given a generous opportunity for Q & A with the Co-Chairs, and through the event the students gain a personal connection to a dedicated public servant.
Here are reflections and advice from last year’s USSYP Senate Co-Chairs and we will continue the series during the summer.
2016: Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO)
- You don’t need to “act like you belong” because you do.
- You belong here in Washington, D.C. You belong in your schools and your communities, and you belong in the great history of our country. And while we face challenges unlike any we’ve ever seen, never forget that you belong in this nation, not as passive observers of what’s happening around you, but as active participants who will solve those great challenges.
- Go out and do great things. And go bold. Because our country is depending on you.
The infectious enthusiasm that Senator Gardner has for the U.S. Senate Youth Program comes with good reason. Not that long ago he was a high school senior sitting at the ceremonial opening night of Washington Week amid the trumpet flourishes of the Color Guard and the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. “I’m here in the United States Senate representing the great state of Colorado because of the United States Senate Youth Program,” said the 1993 — Colorado alumnus serving as the 2016 Republican Co-Chair, “It was here that I became enchanted with public policy, having discussions with the other delegates around the tables, hearing viewpoints that I’d never been exposed to, to with people who, like me, were so interested in politics.”
Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado with Delegates Deanna Christensen and Se Young Cheong.
He regaled the students with stories from his time at the program, flying on an airplane alone for the first time, hearing from Senator John Kerry and Secretary of State Colin Powell and falling asleep mid-sentence while relaying the excitement to his parents on the car ride back from the airport to his small rural town of Yuma.
His father provided some early lessons in politics as well, the first-term Senator explained, when after his son’s urging, and against the wishes of the Mayor, he convinced the City Council to erect a light on a municipal basketball court so Cory and other teenagers could play after dark. “I realized later that it was about more than that that one light on that court; it was a part of a bigger, broader conversation about how we spend tax dollars for services, and how to create a better, brighter future for everyone.”
Senator Gardner outlined key issues he champions in the Senate today, denoting the ‘four corners’ of his focus: energy, the economy, education and the environment. Each presents priorities and challenges reflecting the rapid pace of technological change that impacts our economic competitiveness and society at large.
”You can’t stop innovation,” he said. “What if we had said to Ford, you know what, we like the car but the problem is the poor buggy workers are going to be out of business? This is a country that marches forward with innovation, but your generation will have to find solutions to the displacement of jobs and manufacturing in the economy of the future.”
Tying his deep optimism for the future to understanding of the past, Senator Gardner reminded the delegates that, “Two hundred years ago political scientists and philosophers were pondering how did this ragtag group of rebels and farmers break away from the greatest military power on the face of this earth and create an unprecedented Constitution?” Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, he said “It became possible because within the heart of each and every person swelled the passion to rise.” “I hope that you will someday realize that you, too need to be a part of the fabric of our community, to be leaders,” he said, “Look around you. The people who control our future are right here. The people who control our destinies are sitting to your left and to your right, and I hope that you will take that to heart. I hope that you go out and do great things and go bold. Because our country is depending on you.”
Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI)
- Have the courage to take risks.
- Venture outside your comfort zone.
- You can make a difference in someone else’s life, no matter your station in life.
Senator Mazie K. Hirono’s voice echoed fluidly around the massive domed interior of the National Archives Rotunda. Behind her the original founding documents of our nation glowed softly against the curved stone. “I am the only immigrant serving in the United States House or Senate right now,” said the diminutive junior senator from Hawaii, a magnificent geometrically woven ceremonial orchid lei about her neck. “I spent most of my childhood being raised by grandparents on a rice farm in a very rural part of Japan, where there was no running water.” Senator Hirono revealed the hard path of her childhood to the delegates, including her mother’s courage to escape a difficult family situation and bring her young children, with one shared suitcase, on a steerage immigration passage to the American state of Hawaii. Her mother’s decision, heart-rending as it must have been, led to Senator Hirono’s life of opportunity and leadership.
“So you see, there are two things I want to talk to you about tonight,” Senator Hirono began, “that everyone can make a difference in someone else’s life, and that you must have the courage to take risks.” “We can all make a difference, whatever station in life, wherever you come from,” she said, paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We can all be great if greatness is defined by making a positive difference in someone else’s life.” Senator Hirono, the USSYP 2016 Democratic Co-Chair, embodies the USSYP philosophy of education, leadership and public service, coming to the United States Senate after decades of holding local and statewide elected offices, and serving in the U.S. House. Senator Hirono also holds the distinction of being the first elected female Senator from Hawaii, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate and the first U.S. Senator born in Japan.
The senator’s legislative imperatives reflect her personal experience. Speaking of her hope for comprehensive immigration reform, she said, “We should continue to put the family unit as the guiding principle, because no matter how smart or what type of educational attainments an immigrant has, in order to be happy and fulfilled, you need your family around you.” On the subject of income inequality, a central topic in the current presidential campaign, she said, “I know what it is like to run out of money by the end of the month and you don’t have enough money for rent or food.” These experiences “shape a lot of the battles that I fight. I know who I am fighting for. These are people who don’t have a powerful voice in the political arena. I was one of those people myself and I certainly empathize with the desire and the importance of creating opportunities for everyone,” she explained. Senator Hirono serves on five Senate committees, and when eager hands went up for questions, she bounded easily from subject to subject.
She described the incredible challenge our nation faces in understanding the intentions of the North Korean government, the difficult process of stabilizing the Middle East and spoke passionately about the need for America to accomplish as much as possible through diplomatic channels instead of military intervention. She moved to domestic policy, engaging with the delegates on the importance of strengthening early education opportunities for all children and understanding the impact of governmental regulation on our nation’s small businesses. As the evening closed, Senator Hirono looked out at the faces in her audience saying that she knew she was looking at “Future senators, members of the House, and presidential candidates,” and she urged the USSYP Class of 2016 to make a difference and take the risks needed to venture outside their traditional comfort zones to accomplish great goals.
Senator Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii with Delegates Perry Arrasmith and Zachary Espino.