Each year, a competitive national program selects two high school students from each state to meet with national leaders, like the president and Supreme Court justices. This year, one of the students chosen was a Dillingham senior.
Dillingham high school senior Sawyer Sands represented Alaska as a U.S. Senate Youth Program delegate this month. Alaska’s other delegate was Nyché Andrew of Anchorage.
Normally, the program is held in Washington, D.C., and the students meet with a variety of national leaders. This year it was virtual.
Sands said the program coordinators tried to make the experience as normal as possible, but the virtual conference had its challenges.
“The Zoom calls — it was taxing," Sands said. "Probably 12 hours spent in front of the camera with intermittent breaks — sometimes not long enough. But you really can’t overstate how well they tried to compensate us for that.”
This year’s speakers included Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin. President Biden also delivered a prerecorded address. The students were able to ask questions to each of the speakers.
“My question to Senator Baldwin was: With COVID-19 becoming a pre-existing condition, what does that mean for all the millions of Americans who could stand to lose health care if the Affordable Care Act goes away?” Sands recalled.
Sands said Baldwin told him she was concerned about that as well, although he didn’t get a more direct answer.
Sands also appreciated the chance to learn more about people from different political backgrounds.
“I think with every speaker we had, whether they leaned to the left, leaned to the right, conservative, liberal, Democrat, Republican — they are people," he said. "Talking to them and meeting them, it was clear that they each care — they each care about public service, that’s what they dedicate their life to."
Sands said the virtual conference allowed for more communication with his fellow delegates. Along with discussions of climate change and health care, Sands said they bonded over something many high schoolers experience — imposter syndrome, or a feeling that you’re somewhere you don’t belong, even if you’re qualified to be there.
“Everyone feels that way — even the kids from California who had to compete with a million high school students, intense competition — just that experience that sometimes it is enough, you don’t got to do everything," he said. "It was reassuring in a way, especially to me, here, who maybe feels limited in what you can do, in that everyone feels that feeling, and don’t be afraid of it.”
Sands’ sister, Sadie, was a youth delegate two years ago, and he said that pushed him to apply.
“Of course I always gotta beat my sister at whatever she does," he laughed. "No — I think learning about the opportunity from her was probably the biggest thing. Because being interested in student government and politics just as a hobby myself, even though I can’t vote yet... I think it was inspiration, but more of an educational thing. Because I had never heard of the program before that. And I feel like a lot of people don’t apply because they don’t know it’s around.”
Sands encourages other students from around Southwest Alaska to apply. Those interested in applying for the 2022 program should visit www.ussenateyouth.org.
The program awards each student a $10,000 college scholarship from the Hearst Foundation.
Sands plans to study electrical engineering at MIT this fall.
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