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Student delegates reflect on impactful, enriching Washington Week experience

Date: Monday, April 25, 2022

Two Iowa students were selected as delegates to the 60th annual United States Senate Youth Program (USSYP) held from March 5-12 in Washington, D.C. The Iowa Department of Education caught up with Lexi Duffy, a senior at Okaboji High School in Milford, and Kenny Lam, a senior at Sioux City West High School in Sioux City, to learn more about their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity during Washington Week. Find out what is on the minds of these exceptional students, what they took away from the event and the impact the experience has had on both present and future plans of these young Iowans.

Lexi Duffy

Q and A with Lexi Duffy:

Did the Washington Week experience help strengthen your leadership skills?
The United States Senate Youth Program primed my leadership skills, but not in the way that many would think. I can confidently say I grew as a leader on account of the multitude of advice and insight offered by speakers, mentors, and those around me. Even so, the program is a (virtual) breeding ground for leadership in the smallest of ways. Whether it was stepping up to represent Great Britain in a diplomacy situation, volunteering to give a speech on the meaning of the Capitol, or hosting a delegate-run awards night with a peer from Rhode Island, I found myself leading in small, but impactful ways.

When you met with senators, what topics or questions did you discuss?
My meetings with Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst were packed to the brim with talk of bipartisanship, small town values, and the ever-changing political climate. While these may be fairly standard conversation topics, both senators took a personal approach to the questions and provided a multitude of their own experiences in the legislature as examples. I had the opportunity to ask how each senator takes on the responsibility of representing the interests of a small, agricultural state at a national level and was given multiple pieces of legislation that highlighted the principle. Most importantly, I had the privilege of asking Senator Grassley a most pressing question: “What is your go-to order at Dairy Queen?” I can happily report that it is none other than a Reeses or Snickers Blizzard, depending on the day.

What took me by surprise, however, was how many questions were asked of myself and my co-delegate, Kenny Lam of Sioux City, Iowa.  Both Senator Ernst and Grassley took their time in asking us about ourselves, our future plans, and our most recent pursuits and passions. Even though both were on busy schedules, the senators extended the conversation to inquire about our goals and offer advice where applicable.

Were there other significant people you met with that had an impact on you? Were you also able to connect with other delegates?
Aside from meeting with senators, I was able to meet, speak with, and listen to an impressive range of speakers. Whether it was Former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Senate Historian Betty Koed, or United States Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, I was impacted by the breadth of knowledge presented before me. I was constantly in awe of their genuine, honest nature and willingness to answer as many questions as their schedules could handle.

Thanks to an abundance of social media platforms, I had no shortage of connections with my fellow delegates. I talked of rural experiences with a delegate from West Virginia, bonded over jazz music with a delegate from New York, and cultivated close-knit relationships with delegates from across the country. However, our connections existed and continue to exist far outside the bounds of the Washington Week programming. We held and continue to hold nightly Zoom calls, visit colleges together, and act as a support system for each other. Even with 104 delegates, the community of the United States Senate Youth Program is and will always be one of my closest.

Did this experience support or change your decisions about your future career plans?
This experience simply corroborated and affirmed the goals I have set for my future career plans. I went into the week with a hesitant belief that I could serve somewhere in the realm of public policy and public service. I thought that my future lay in some niche of government, policy, or legislating. I can gladly say that the United States Senate Youth Program has only confirmed this idea.

While I am not entirely sure in what form, I have hopes to enter the field of politics, public policy, or law. This program broadened my understanding of the opportunities that exist in this field. Whether it be as a Judge, Diplomat, or Advocate, I am confident that this program was a first step in a future of public service. This program was absolutely pertinent in establishing the belief that I have the ability, confidence, and resources to pursue a career in policy.

Will this experience impact your future community and public service activities?
I am certain this program has bolstered my commitment to public service and involvement in my community. As I transition to a new community from high school to college, this program and the people within it will act as a standard for what service can and should be. Mostly, I believe that the program piqued my interest in other forms of public service. Whether it be a Senate Historian or Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman, the speakers of the program have broadened my understanding of what a public service activity or career can look like.

Further, this program has served as a point of possibility in my current community, and I intend for it to do so as well in my future communities. Coming from a relatively small town in Northwest Iowa, I have been grateful to share my experiences in the United States Senate Youth Program with a community that is rarely exposed to such opportunity. My experience has sparked conversations about involvement in politics, rural Iowa representation at a larger scale, and involvement of the individual. I have strong hopes to continue these types of conversations regardless of the community I find myself involved in.

Share a few highlights or experiences from the program that were especially memorable or impactful for you.
First and foremost, my military mentor and mentor group had a profound impact on my experience. A small 10-person subset of the 104-person delegation, this group was spearheaded by a “military mentor.” It was through this group that we processed the day's events, engaged in thoughtful discussion, and reflected on our experiences. Over the course of a week, I was immersed in conversation with delegates from Georgia, Vermont, Oregon, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and more, along with guidance from our mentor Lt. Borders of the United States Coast Guard. I was impacted by the closeness of this group and the community it provided during the week.

In regard to a specific experience, I would say that the Capitol “Open Mic” night will be an event that stays with me. A night filled with poetry, speeches, and white chocolate capitols, this night set out to showcase what the Capitol means to each of us as an individual. Some spoke of their experiences as an immigrant, others showed how words can be so artistically used to describe the culture surrounding a singular building. I chose to detail the idea that the Capitol is not of the government, but of the people. Simply, I was grateful to be exposed to the multitude of perspectives, ideas, and backgrounds of those around me in regard to our government.

Kenny Lam

Q and A with Kenny Lam:

Did the Washington Week experience help strengthen your leadership skills?
Without a doubt. Through learning from our nation's top officials, my fellow peers, and members of the military, I found that I was able to strengthen my own voice.

When you met with senators, what topics or questions did you discuss?
In my meeting with Senator Ernst, I asked about any obstacles she uniquely faced as a female politician. Senator Ernst provided insight on how there are challenges for women who pursue political office and reassured me to follow my dreams. In my meeting with Senator Grassley, we were able to discuss bipartisan issues that are often underrepresented in the media. Senator Grassley provided an example of a bill he was actively working on with Democrats to reduce prescription drug prices (something that I was completely unaware of).

Were there other significant people you met with that had an impact on you? Were you also able to connect with other delegates?
My military mentor, Lieutenant Lauren Hickey of the U.S. Navy, had a significant impact on my program experience. We had daily debriefings in our mentoring groups, and it was there that I got the chance to truly know my peers. I learned about Lieutenant Hickey's journey to the military and--overall--getting to know her really humanized the military and its branches for me. Additionally, I was able to connect with other delegates (before and after the program) through our individual social media platforms and Slack.

Did this experience support or change your decisions about your future career plans?
Before attending the program, I was almost certain that I wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. I viewed politics as too divisive of a career and never considered public service as anything of value. However, this program has led me to conclude that finding a middle ground is possible and it must be reached at all costs. Though still largely undecided, I've become more interested in pursuing an intersection of public policy and STEM to learn about how our government can actively improve health care.

Will this experience impact your future community and public service activities?
To a certain extent, this experience has impacted the activities I wish to be involved in as I enter college. I am partly inspired by fellow delegates and all the work they do in other organizations concerning racial justice, mental health, climate change, and more.

Share a few highlights or experiences from the program that were especially memorable or impactful for you.
My most memorable experience from the program was getting to deliver a speech during the Capitol Dome Open Mic Night. In a typical year, the event was a formal dinner that included eating a decadent white chocolate Capitol dome. However, the virtual dinner was just as memorable as delegates and I were able to talk about what the U.S. Capitol means to each of us. Afterwards, we all bit into the chocolate domes that were included in our welcome packages. It was surely inspiring, impactful, and tasty!

Another highlight of the program was hearing from NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General Carmen Romero and UN Ambassador Linda T. Greenfield. Since Washington Week occurred while war was active in Ukraine, the concepts of foreign policy and diplomacy that each speaker preached were more valuable than ever. Both were extremely receptive to delegate questions which enhanced my understanding of our nation's leaders.