Grace stepped up to the podium in the California Assembly Chamber. The room was filled with nearly 4,000 people, gathered in joint session at the Sacramento Convention Center.
After an intense six-month campaign filled with delegation visits & speeches, the newly elected Speaker of the Assembly convened all 4,000 delegates for the first day of legislative session.
For some, this might be the pinnacle of a long career in public service. But for Grace—a high school senior who turned 18 later that month—it’s only the beginning of a promising future.
For the past four years, Grace has participated in Youth and Government, a program run through the YMCA that teaches high school students how the legislative & judicial branches work in California. Similar to the Model U.N. and Model Congress, parliamentary procedure is observed, bills & resolutions are debated, and votes are held to pass legislation.
Beginning as a delegate her freshman year, Grace was a member of the assembly in the Model Legislature. Grace went on to write & sponsor her own bill to help students living in areas with scarce access to healthy foods, known as “food deserts.”
“That job took a lot of preparation,” Grace recalls. “I had to write the language of the bill, prepare author sponsor & summation speeches, lobby assembly members to gain their support, and meet with youth elected officials to ask for endorsements.”
Grace gained further experience her Junior year, when she decided to run for (and win) the position of Speaker Pro Tempore, a key position second only to the Youth Speaker of the Assembly. It was a campaign that required Grace to travel across the state, giving speeches before sizable groups of people.
And that preparation helped her to form the relationships & develop the skills to prepare her for the top job the following year.
Many Destinations Along the Way
Traveling across California for Youth and Government was no big deal for Grace, a world traveler who has already been to 30 countries.
Learning from other cultures and connecting with people living all over the world is a value that she shares with her mother (and sometimes travelling companion). Grace is fluent in Spanish, a skill that has helped her to experience more than the typical visitor to South or Central America.
“I have been to Ecuador twice. It’s one of my favorite countries,” Grace shares. “Both of those times, I had radically different experiences. The first time, I stayed in more urban cities. The second time, we stayed in a rural village filled with passionate and devoted men and women.”
Grace elaborates on a visit she made to an all-girls school in Ecuador that had a tremendous impact on her understanding of the challenges they face.
“We learned that, unlike the boys’ schools, they only had school every Tuesday and Thursday because the government didn’t give them any aid,” she reveals. “So on Mondays and Wednesdays, girls would come to school to make belts and scarves for the purpose of selling to fund their education.”
Another of Grace’s favorite destinations is Morocco, where she spent six weeks studying Arabic and living with a host family as part of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (a program run by the U.S. Department of State).
But Grace wasn’t only immersed in the language and culture of Morocco. The timing of her trip coincided with the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast (the Fourth Pillar of Islam) between sunrise and sunset for the entire month.
“I fasted alongside my host family in solidarity and I learned a lot,” Grace relates. “While fasting, one does not eat until sunset [7:45pm in the capital, Rabat]. After we broke fast, we would celebrate and socialize with family and friends until about 2:30am, at which point we would eat again before falling asleep."
This 18 year-old has ridden a camel through the Sahara Desert!“Take the time to sit with locals and do your best to try and get to know them, regardless of language barrier,” Grace advises any girls with dreams of seeing the world. “So frequently, travelers separate themselves from the people they are trying to understand. I have found that sitting in solidarity with the people you want to understand allows you to learn a story you didn’t know before.”
Glimpses of the Road Ahead
As Grace prepares to finish up her senior year, she has many activities & accomplishments of which to be proud—Writing for the school newspaper. Editing her school’s Spanish magazine. Founding and leading extracurricular clubs. Singing. Acting. Years of service, both in school and out. Over 11 years in the Girl Scouts of America, where she received her bronze, silver, and gold awards.
Now, she looks ahead to the next steps in her life. Grace will start at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in the Fall. Not surprisingly, she dreams of a life in public service, either in the legislative branch, the Department of State or the non-profit sector. “I want to ultimately work to protect the rights of others,” shares Grace.
Grace is a passionate, motivated young woman with dreams not only for herself, but her generation. She believes that our passion, our talents, and current technology can be harnessed in service of a greater good—if we can avoid distraction and find courage for the challenges ahead.
“When I read the news and see stories about children without access to education, that infuriates me,” she confesses. “That passion stirs me to use my voice to stand for justice along with my friends. I urge everyone, no matter how young or old, to stay informed with the news.”
Speaking on the challenges and opportunities presented by new technological advances, Grace says, “Though technology brings great advances, I believe it also distracts many people in my generation. I believe our generation must use our resources as ways to better the future rather than tear it apart. Accordingly, our intellect regarding new technology gives us the power to connect with people internationally and to research complex issues.”
A Leader for Today…and Tomorrow
Grace has already embraced the responsibilities and challenges of taking a leadership role, from her community to her school to her state. As Grace presided over the California Model Legislature, she grew as a public speaker, as a debate facilitator, and as a coordinator. It is an experience she will carry with her always.
“My most impactful moment in this position was the last day of the Assembly,” recalls Grace. “I took a moment to look around the room at every single one of the delegates and silently appreciated everything they had contributed, whether it was by speaking frequently or being an active listener.”
Grace sums up the experience, saying, “my ultimate goal in life is to empower others to become leaders.” On that last day, she saw that goal play out exactly as she hoped.
After the final session, one of the delegates approached Grace and said that she had inspired the girl to run for Speaker of the Assembly, because she had carried out her duties “with such grace.”
I couldn’t agree more fully.