How the Military Influences the US Senate Youth Program

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

This week kicks off the 56th U.S. Senate Youth Program, which brings some exceptional high school students to Washington D.C. for a week to get an inside look at how the government runs. It’s an amazing chance for students to see the inner workings of our government, so it should be no surprise that some of the best and brightest from our military serve as their mentors.

104 high school student delegates — two from each state, the District of Columbia, and DoDEA — arrive in Washington, D.C., for the 56th annual U.S. Senate Youth Program, March 3-10, 2018. Photo by Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

First Thing’s First: What is the U.S. Senate Youth Program?

Since 1962, the U.S. Senate Youth Program has essentially worked to boost students’ understanding of the political process and spark their desire to pursue a career in public service. Two students from each state, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Education Activity schools are invited every year.

The 104 delegates, as they’re called, get to hear major policy addresses by senators, cabinet members, State Department and Defense Department officials and directors of several federal agencies. They also get to take part in meetings with the president and a Supreme Court justice, and there are extensive question and answer sessions.

It’s a big deal for the Senate, too. About 75 percent of senators participate by either speaking to students this week, through the program’s annual Senate reception or by serving on the program’s advisory committee.

104 high school student delegates — two from each state, the District of Columbia, and DoDEA — take part in the 56th annual U.S. Senate Youth Program held in Washington, D.C., March 3-10, 2018. Photo by Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

How is the Military Involved?

Seventeen military officers were selected this year from more than 60 applicants to serve as student mentors. They’re with the delegates 24/7 and act as guides, counselors and role models, making sure the students are up to speed on protocol and necessary behavior.

In the past, military mentors have included pilots, language experts, intelligence specialists and professors from all different backgrounds.

Military mentors are introduced on the second day of the U.S. Senate Youth Program in Washington, D.C., which gives 104 high school student delegates from across the country a look at the inner workings of the U.S. government. Photo by Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

A Sampling of This Year’s Mentors

Air Force Capt. Joshua Harnisch, an aerospace engineer and international relations aficionado, was a delegate himself in 2009. The 27-year-old third-generation officer will return to Washington as a mentor. He said the advice he received in 2009 was extremely useful.

Air Force Capt. Joshua Harnisch

“They helped to engage the delegates in discussions of the speakers and events so that we were never just passively receiving, but were interacting with each other and debating ideas,” Harnisch said. “I was constantly amazed by their focus and seemingly unflagging energy. I think I took that as an inspiration for my own military career.”

He’s looking forward to being that example to a new class of politically active students.

“There’s nothing ordinary about the students. They can and do go toe-to-toe during Q&A’s with some of the top officials in the government,” Harnisch said. “It’s rare to get an opportunity to engage with such an incredible cross-section of the country.”

His advice to students? Always assess yourself and try to improve, even if you just want to coast.

“In those moments, you have to push through and make it across the finish line,” he said.

Marine Corps Capt. Yuwynn Ho is a judge advocate (aka, a lawyer) who spent time in the corporate world but wanted to make more of a difference. He joined the Marines, which allowed him to earn his commission, attend law school and pass the bar exam.

He mentored USSYP delegates in 2014 and is looking forward to imparting his knowledge and life experiences to them again this year. One of his biggest pieces of advice: understand the issues, regardless of your politics.

“Just because you disagree with an opposing viewpoint, it doesn’t mean the other side is wrong,” he said. “Do your research, understand the positions on different issues, and keep an open mind on why the other side views things differently.”

Marine Corps Capt. Yuwynn Ho and Army Maj. Humberto Alvarez are two of 17 military mentors showing 104 high school students around Washington, D.C., this week during the U.S. Senate Youth Program. Photo by Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

Army Maj. Humberto Alvarez also mentored in 2014 and will be this year’s senior military mentor. Since many delegates haven’t had many interactions with service members, the program is a great opportunity to educate the students on military life.

“Having mentors present to confront misperceptions and stress key areas of importance in maintaining our national security will hopefully narrow or close the ever-expanding civilian-military divide,” Alvarez said. Surprisingly, he said their questions to him were pretty intricate. “Their questions were much more nuanced than I ever expected: asking about DoD troop levels and my thoughts on the time-phased approach to troop withdrawal under the previous administration.”

As mentors, they walk away with a renewed sense of encouragement, too.

“Our future rests in the more-than-capable hands of this great new generation. These delegates are passionate about public service. … It is truly a reciprocal learning experience,” Alvarez said.

Senate Youth Program students Marion Lovett and Amanda Finnegan take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, March 10, 2017. Army photo by Rachel Larue

Lastly … Some Big Names Have Come Through This Program

Notably:

  • Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. She was the first student delegate to be elected to the Senate.
  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the first delegate to be elected governor.
  • Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, also attended the USSYP.

If you know someone interested in applying to be a delegate, here’s more about the selection process. If you’re interested in applying to be a military mentor, visit USSenateYouth.org/selection_military_contact.

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