A week in Washington meeting influential people, seeing how the government works and earning a hefty $5,000 college scholarship may seem like a one-in-a-million set of prizes. For students at Shawnee Mission West High School, it’s become a reality several times.
Encouraged by social studies teacher Ron Walker, six West students have earned a place in the United States Senate Youth Program since 2001. Each year, only two students from each state earn a spot in the program. West senior Ami Purohit has landed a spot in this year’s program, which will be held in March.
Previous West students to make the grade are Yuqi Hou, Dan Kornfeld, Liam Reilly, Jack Kapaun and Roman Swoopes. The whole trip is sponsored by the Heart Foundations.
To be selected, high school juniors and seniors must be involved in student government. It’s not just a regular application either — all applicants must take a test to show their knowledge of local and national politics.
Because most students take the required American government class their senior year, they haven’t necessarily learned all of this information in school before they take the qualifying exam for the award program, and they must study independently.
“The book tests were pretty hard. There were a lot of important politicians and concepts you had to know,” said Kornfeld, who is now a pre-med student at St. Louis University.
Although students who participate in the program are encouraged to study political science in college, it’s not required. The key is to have students who are interested in the procedures of government.
“We try to find the most well-rounded kids, who are academically talented. They want students who are potential community leaders,” Walker said.
During the week they spend in Washington, students meet with senators, cabinet members and representatives from various federal agencies. They also might see some famous faces. Reilly remembers meeting President Barack Obama just a few months into his first term.
For Kornfeld, it was newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor who made an impression.
“She was the first person I’d ever listened to as a public speaker who really had it down to an art. I really admired her way of capturing people’s attention,” Kornfeld said.
Reilly, now a civil engineering major at Kansas State University, also calls the opportunity he had to talk with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg his personal favorite experience of the trip.
“It was cool to see how knowledgeable she was about the law and the Constitution,” Reilly said.
Reilly and Mitchel Loring, the other Kansas delegate that year, also got the opportunity to introduce fellow Kansan and former FDIC chair Sheila Bair when she gave a lecture to the group.
Both Reilly and Kornfeld emphasized another networking aspect of the experience: getting to know their fellow delegates.
“I was meeting all these people I’m still in contact with today — people at Princeton, Stanford and Harvard,” Reilly said. “This is a great way to meet like-minded individuals and have discussions with very informed people our age instead of with adults. It’s a great way to get out there, see Washington and meet future leaders.”
Although neither Kornfeld nor Reilly plans to be a career politician, both said that the experience has made them consider getting involved with local politics in the future.
Of the other West student delegates, Hou is now a student at Harvard University, Kapaun graduated from Northwestern University and Swoopes graduated from Harvard.
For Walker, seeing so many of his students succeed in such a competitive environment has been a treat.
“They are really impressive kids, and there’s a lot more like them here at West and at every school. It’s been very rewarding for me to see these kids develop,” Walker said. “It’s probably one of the highlights of my (45-year) teaching career. We’ve been able to help prepare them so they could do it, and it inspires me and makes me feel proud of my students.”