(BPT) – This summer, top teenage girls representing all 50 states convened in Washington, D.C. to vote on important legislation. But these representatives haven’t been elected by the American people yet. The group of 100 high school senior girls assembled for the 70th annual American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation, an intensive week long program that teaches responsible citizenship grounded in ethics and the principles of our nations founders.
The American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) is a nonpartisan organization committed to advocating for veterans’ issues, mentoring America’s youth and promoting patriotism. They advance the mission of The American Legion, incorporated by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization founded on four pillars: Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation, National Security, Americanism and Children & Youth.
Every year the ALA underwrites and presents the experiential learning program for exceptional female students, two from each of the 50 states, who serve as mock senators in ALA Girls Nation, a unique government-in-action leadership development program designed to educate future leaders on U.S. government fundamentals and the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizens by forming a fictitious nation.
More than 6,500 aspiring young women have attended ALA Girls Nation since its inception in 1947. Each new class gathers to participate in compelling debates, run mock political campaigns, visit historical sites and have the chance to meet with their real life counterparts on Capitol Hill.
“My most sacred memory from ALA Girls Nation was when I took down and folded the American flag,” recalls 1991 participant Kate Kohler, a U.S. Army veteran who is now principal in the Washington, D.C. office of executive search firm Korn Ferry. “To me, it symbolizes not only freedom, but the impressive girls that I shared the experience with.”
ALA Girls Nation is a “leadership laboratory,” as Kohler describes it. “In your life, you will have experiences where you realize we are all bound by the commonality of democracy. ALA Girls Nation was the first time in my life that I was able to be a part of this great experiment.”
For some girls, ALA Girls Nation is their first opportunity to connect with peers with common interests. For others, it is the first time they encounter students whose perspective differs from their own. For all, it is a moment in time where similarities and differences come together to symbolize strength, democracy and freedom.
Jessie Heidlage was the first ALA Girls Nation senator selected from her high school in Claremore, Oklahoma. A member of FFA (Future Farmers of America), Heidlage presented legislation that would give government awards to farmers who employed environmentally friendly farming practices.
“ALA Girls Nation was one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced, but I knew in that week that my calling was something greater,” Heidlage says. “Heidlage was invited back as a junior counselor in 2013 and again in 2014 as dean of junior counselors. Today she attends law school at The University of Oklahoma.
“Seven days can really change the trajectory of your life,” remarked Riya Patel, a 2012 alumna. “Meeting these diverse women and hearing about what they wanted to do with their lives pushed me into a new direction in my own life.”
Patel is a rising senior at Harvard University. She is currently interning with a team that offers financial advisory services for municipalities and aspires to pursue her interests in international trade and economic development in graduate business school.
ALA Girls Nation alumnae have gone on to hold leadership roles in industries spanning government, media, education and law, and many have become high-ranking members of the military.
Notable alumnae include Jane Pauley, national media personality; Susan Bysiewicz, Connecticut Secretary of State; Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy and former Air Force aide to the President; Ann Richards, former governor of Texas; and Susan Porter-Rose, former chief of staff to First Lady Barbara Bush, among many others.
ALA Girls Nation lasts for one short week. Yet, the seven-day experience with our legislative process and diverse minds from across the country has proven to be a strong foundation for thousands of bright futures.
For more information on ALA, visit www.alaforveterans.org.