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

Arizona 2020 Delegate Victor Anaya Exemplifies Leadership on Public Health Policy in His Tight-Knit Community

We continue our Blog series on the USSYP Class of 2020, whose Washington Week has the dubious distinction of being the first to be canceled due to a global pandemic. The 2020 program was canceled just as the fast-spreading Covid-19 virus began changing life as we know it. True to form, and to all expectations, these young leaders have risen to unprecedented challenges, continue to put community and public service first, and are ready to tackle the changed landscape of college and beyond. The second in our series focuses on Victor Anaya of Arizona, who was a student public health advocate prior to Covid-19,  and now envisions a potential new career path in public health management and preparedness.

Victor Anaya at his graduation

USSYP:  What has been happening in your life since the cancellation of Washington Week and the announcement of the pandemic?

I’m from Douglas, Arizona, and a recent graduate of Douglas High School. It is a public school with a close-knit community. Many students come from a reasonably similar background – one of being raised in a border town, Hispanic, bilingual, and small community connections. The day USSYP canceled the trip, I had finished spring semester midterms. As the following week would have been my spring break, I had no worries about missing lessons and homework while away, not that it mattered compared to the trip’s experience. I believe I haven’t finished my spring break since quarantine began near the end of that week-long break. Therefore, I don’t recognize myself as a high school graduate as my school’s traditional events for seniors weren’t organized because of this pandemic. I obtained my graduation diploma through a drive-through in which the graduate’s vehicle could be decorated to express that milestone. The community of Douglas does create an environment where each graduate of every cohort can feel cherished no matter how the diploma is received.

USSYP: During this unprecedented time, have there been any instances where your natural inclinations toward leadership and service shone through?

Mayoral candidate forum organized immediately before quarantine. 

Unfortunately, there have been few opportunities for in-person leadership in my community since quarantine. My community of Douglas, Arizona previously organized many in-person events that would have allowed me to train my leadership skills. I was fortunate that I was able to organize a mayoral forum for our upcoming mayor elections two weeks before quarantine started.

Victor Anaya, fifth from the left, with the Cochise County Youth Health Coalition.

The organization I worked with to host this forum is the Cochise County Youth Health Coalition, but our high school refers to it as Drew. This was my fourth year being involved. This organization is made up of high school students and run by the public health administration in Douglas with Jesus Duarte (second person from the left) as the advisor. The coalition advocates for making the community of Douglas, Arizona as smoke and vape-free as possible and bringing awareness to the community about the importance of nutrition, physical and mental health, and prevention of buying tobacco and vape products. We met every Tuesday at the public health building to discuss our plans. In my four years, we have worked primarily on preventing the sale of tobacco products to minors. During my first year, we worked on the Tobacco 21 initiative that successfully made the city of Douglas raise the legal age for tobacco purchase from 18 to 21. After that, we partnered with the University of Arizona Public Health College to do a photovoice project that brought awareness to our living style as a bi-national community. We do these types of annual projects while cleaning up public parks and are now close to having most of the public parks smoke-free! This organization is totally non partisan; we focus on educating the community, such as hosting this forum for voters to know “what was up” with our mayoral candidates.

From the start of the quarantine, most of my fellow leader peers and advisors were unable to conduct any form of person to person interaction because it was a very scary time for the community. Douglas is very limited to what and how organized events can be conducted, so the early months of quarantine very much halted any possible forms of organizing anything. It was a sad time for me to accept the fact that our planned events were being canceled.

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?

I did part take in the Washington Week Online sessions. I found all of the speakers enlightening because I don’t live in a place that offers many opportunities to meet people in these positions. I gained a newer understanding of leadership through the various speakers and their experiences as our nation’s foremost representatives. I admired Senator James Lankford’s story of how he was able to run for office and get elected without a typical political background. I felt that to be inspiring because I believe leaders emerge in crises, when their town or community needs a voice and direction. It was nice to virtually meet someone that came up from that kind of background as they may be the most aware of the situation that makes them the best fit to take leadership.

USSYP Republican Co-Chair Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma speaks with delegates during Washington Week Online.   © 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?

Thankfully technology did connect me to many people across the United States. I keep in touch with a couple of USSYP delegates, most of them from neighboring states. It’s nice to meet people with different political perspectives. I enjoy learning from these perspectives because it makes me become more considerate of people before acting or commenting.

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

The pandemic has had a few positive effects on my life. I have become closer to my family because beforehand my academic and extracurricular activities took most of my time. I’ve especially bonded more with my two younger brothers. Secondly, I’ve taken the time to reread a few book series such as the: Hunger Games and Divergent series. The pandemic caused me to further examine the reasons I want to be a public servant for my community and country. I’m more enthusiastic about embarking on a journey that will eventually help fellow citizens in my community. Overall, the pandemic has given me greater motivation for wanting to help make communities become and stay healthier, with the overall goal of being pandemic ready.   

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

I will attend the University of Arizona this upcoming fall. I will attend virtually with the possibility of going in person for one class (chemistry) a few times throughout the semester. I will be staying home and not living in the U of A dorms. I believe I will need to focus on organizing my time better since during all of my years in school, I have mentally associated my home as a place for rest, homework, and school as the actual place for learning and socializing. Now, I will have to organize my time to “get the best of both worlds.” The pandemic has altered my original vision for my future by now including the desire to become a future healthcare coordinator who can help reorganize the healthcare system enough to be pandemic ready. Hopefully, another pandemic does not arise, but it’s best to be safe rather than sorry.