North Senior participates in US Senate Program
In a time of national political interest, High School North senior Ryan Zhang got an up-close opportunity to explore the structure of the US government. From March 4th to the 11th, Zhang participated in the United States Senate Youth Program (USSYP), an extremely prestigious opportunity in which two student-delegates from each state in the country are invited to Washington D.C. and meet with various important figures, tour the monuments, and learn about the inner workings of our democracy.
The USSYP was created by Senate Resolution 324 in 1962, in order to increase high schoolers’ interest in government. Now, in its fifty fifth year, the program has become a popular way for students to increase their understanding of US politics. Zhang, however, actually “came across USSYP by accident. I was initially looking for internship/professional opportunities in government and politics when I came across the program’s website on Google.”
While Zhang’s participation in school clubs such as Model Congress, Debate Club, and Model UN had helped him develop an extensive understanding of government, he “really wanted to deepen my passion for our country’s political process and gain real-world exposure to the field. USSYP, with such a diverse group of adult speakers and student delegates from all branches of government and every corner of the country, presented itself as the ideal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to do so.”
Each day in the program was packed with tours, visits, seminars, and engaging discussion with national leaders. “Starting off with breakfast (at the historic Mayflower Hotel), each meal would feature a different guest speaker, from journalist Bob Schieffer to Nick Rasmussen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. In between, we’d take excursions around the city, visiting behind-the-scenes and learning about government buildings and monuments. In general, the speakers presented themselves as non-partisans, insteading sharing with us life lessons they had learned through a life in public service. It was beyond inspiring to hear from such a distinguished, yet deeply thoughtful and committed group of people,” Zhang said.
Zhang and all other participating students got to fulfill their dreams of meeting top officials during the program. “We heard from countless speakers, from the President and Vice President of the United States, to Chief Justice John Roberts and the Surgeon General. My New Jerseyan co-delegate and I got to meet with Senator Robert Menendez one evening and attended a luncheon with Senator Cory Booker the next day. Of course, we visited the major monuments, the Newseum, Mount Vernon, and Arlington Cemetery, but we also visited lesser known places, such as Anderson House, a museum dedicated to preserving the ideals of the American Revolution. One day, we even got to visit the State Department, where we dined in their diplomatic reception room before meeting the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson,” Zhang said.
One of Zhang’s favorite moments in the program was watching the Senate during a vote. “We collectively gasped as Senate giants like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Rand Paul, and Chuck Schumer all entered to cast their votes. In the end, I exited, astonished by not only who we had seen, but also by the idea that we were in the exact same room where war against Hitler’s Germany was once declared, Bill Clinton was impeached, and Lyndon B. Johnson once presided as Master of the Senate,” Zhang said.
Getting in was no easy feat. Zhang proclaims that the application process was “one of the most intense and exhaustive processes I’ve ever gone through. Because the process is administered by each state’s Department of Education, I had to first secure my nomination to the program by High School North before receiving the written application. The application itself required everything, from essays, my transcript, and a resume, to recommendation letters from my teachers. Out of all those who apply, ultimately two delegates are chosen by each state as representatives to the program.”
In his application essay, Zhang had discussed his lifelong connection to politics, and how USSYP would help continue and strengthen his passion. “I wrote about how my passion for politics was first nurtured in middle school, when I engrossed myself in TIME For Kids magazines in my history classrooms, and how Model Congress in high school, comprised of other well-informed, politically minded students, became the perfect place for me to break out of my quiet shell, find my voice, and advocate for issues that mattered to me. Finally, I also shared with them the principle I’ve adopted through my service projects, reminding myself and my peers that we don’t have to be destined to change the world because to a single person, we can mean a world of difference,” Zhang said.
Zhang admits that he did not expect to hear back from USSYP with good news. However, Ms. Warren, the teacher that provided his recommendation for the program, believed otherwise. “On paper, Ryan stands out because of his grades, leadership experience, achievements, awards, and recognitions. But for me, what stands out among all of the success is that Ryan is, first and foremost, a good person. He cares about his work, his peers, his school, and his world. I suppose that it must sound cliché, but working with Ryan gives me hope; he does not lead out of a desire to control others or assert some form of superiority, but out of a desire to give generously of his time and gifts to improve the world around him.”
Along with teaching Spanish, Ms. Warren is the advisor for Model United Nations (MUN) and National Honors Society, which gave her an extensive view of Ryan throughout his four years at North. “Ryan first caught my eye three years ago at an MUN conference; as a young MUN team member, Ryan captured the room with his public-speaking skills. Since then, it has been my pleasure to watch him compete in MUN competitions across the country, serve as an officer in our MUN club, and serve as the president of the National Honor Society, which I also advise,” Warren said.
“I have personally seen the care and dedication he showed while organizing a Halloween event for local children, washing cars for charity, organizing trips to soup kitchens, among many other events. While some students participate in service events in order to enhance their résumé, Ryan’s service flows from his concern for others and his ability to effectively lead change efforts in the community,” she continued.
“Ryan is one of the most responsible individuals that I know. He is a fabulous leader, bringing vision, passion, and organization to every problem that he encounters. Ryan is also very funny – whether Ryan is laughing at himself or simply bringing humor to a situation, I find myself laughing when I am with him,” Warren concluded.
His peers know that Zhang is special in his character and his actions. Jonah Lubin, a senior at North, first met Ryan in Community Middle School. “Ryan in 7th grade was very unassuming, at least in my early relationship with him. He was obviously intelligent, but he never flaunted it. (...) He would complete some very good piece of work but he did not brag or show off. There was always a mind at work, but unlike the average smart middle schooler he was never openly prideful,” Lubin said.
Lubin has watched him grow and believes that Zhang has become only more impressive. “Where Ryan has grown the most is in the breadth of his passion. He has always had a great love for music; that has remained constant since the first time I met him. Since that time, however, he has become very passionate about a whole range of subjects including law, economics, and philosophy,” Lubin said.
Even the North principal, Jonathan Dauber, has noticed Ryan’s passion and commitment to serving others. “Ryan stands out very much within our school. He is a leader among his peers as well as an advocate for the greater community,” Dauber said.
“Ryan is an advocate for students and student groups at HS North. He connects well with others and demonstrates a humble sense of strong and thoughtful leadership,” he continued.
As Dauber mentioned, Zhang participates in a plethora of activities. “I’m an avid member of my school’s Model Congress club and serve as Captain of the Mock Trial team. Beyond politics and debate, I’ve been a classically-trained pianist since childhood, but I’ve also been studying conducting since freshman year. Last year, I conducted the school musical, which was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” Zhang said.
His passion for music was active during the summer, in which Zhang was one of two Apprentice Conductors of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. “While there, I got a chance to work with Christoph Eschenbach, Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, who we actually got to hear in performance one evening at the Kennedy Center during USSYP. Things really came full circle!”
Outside of music, Zhang also enjoys reading, and has been reading more during his free time in his senior year. “I just finished up America’s Constitution by Akhil Reed Amar, and am currently on Justice by Michael Sandel, which is a study of public morality and how it shapes our political views,” Zhang said.
In school, Zhang’s favorite classes are social studies-related. “Without a doubt, the most influential class I’ve taken has been American history. Mr. Bugge’s countless harkness tables and debates taught me the power of my own voice, as well as the importance of listening to the voices of others. His seemingly endless primary source readings reminded me that nothing, either in history or in real life, exists without context. And his endless emphasis on supporting our arguments with evidence made me realize that unlike math and science, which are often portrayed as black or white, history (and by extension, politics) is a swamp of gray that seldom yields concrete answers,” Zhang said.
Zhang is an only child, and was born in Toronto but has lived in West Windsor since moving before second grade. His father works as a database developer and his mother used to work as an accountant, so he “broke the mold when I decided to study Government and eventually move onto law school,” Zhang said.
This fall, Zhang will be attending Harvard University, where he plans to concentrate in Government with a secondary in Music. He also plans to join the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and get involved with the Harvard Opera Company. After college, Zhang wants to attend law school and eventually pursue a career in government policymaking or law. On this path, Zhang’s dream is to become “a federal judge and someday be seated on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
Zhang believes he’s learned many valuable lessons from USSYP for his future. “USSYP helped me truly realize the importance of understanding people with whom I disagree. The community I live in is overwhelmingly liberal, so it was an eye-opening experience meeting other delegates from all corners of the county and hearing about their perspectives. I met self-avowed socialists and others who believed in creationism. Talking to them helped me not only realize what their opinions were, but also the thought processes behind them. And yet the more I talked to them, the more I realized how much more we shared in our common morals and ideals than were passionate about our differences,” Zhang said.
“So many times throughout the week, I recalled our motto “E pluribus Unum”— “out of many, one.” We have often read this motto on American coinage and documents, but USSYP reaffirmed within me the idea that the basic framework of our democracy is its citizens. We don’t stand alone; we are part of a whole,” he concluded.
To view the full schedule of the USSYP, or to apply for the 2018 program, please visit www.ussenateyouth.org.
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