Lockport District 205, CPS students visit White House, meet Biden, through Senate youth program

Lockport Township High School senior Chelsea Osei was at a speech club practice when her phone chimed with an email notification.

Walter Payton College Preparatory High School senior Anoushka Lal was driving home from a Chicago Public Schools Civil Rights Scholars program with her mom and younger sister when the email notification popped up on her phone.

The emails informed them they would be Illinois’ delegates for the 62nd Annual United States Senate Youth Program. Lal, who lives in Lincoln Park, wrote it filled her eyes with tears.

“I just remember screaming in one of our classrooms because I got that news. I was very excited for it,” Osei said.

The program aims to increase young Americans’ understanding of the interrelationships of the three branches of government, the responsibilities of federally elected and appointed officials and the importance of democratic decision making, according to a program news release.

The program is sponsored by the Senate and fully funded by The Hearst Foundation, according to the release. There are 104 student delegates — two from each state and from the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Education Activity — spend a week in Washington. The foundation also gives each student a $10,000 scholarship toward undergraduate education.

This year, the students spent March 2-9 in Washington, meeting government officials and visiting different government agencies, Osei said.

Osei, who lives in Crest Hill, said her favorite part was meeting Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth; watching the State of the Union address at the White House; and meeting President Joe Biden later that evening. As an aspiring civil rights lawyer, Osei said she also enjoyed visiting the Department of Justice.

“Being so immersed in so many civil cases, being such a big supporter of civil rights and hopefully being a civil rights attorney when I’m older, it was nice to see government officials doing the things that I’m also interested in and seeing where I could possibly end up in the future,” Osei said.

Lal said she most enjoyed meeting and hearing from Biden, Duckworth, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and journalist Judy Woodruff. Biden and Buttigieg shared their personal experience with the youth program, Lal said, which was powerful.

Lal recalled eating presidential popcorn and M&Ms at the White House East Room for the State of the Union, and watching and performing a dance to “Party in the U.S.A” by Miley Cyrus in the middle of a ballroom with all the other delegates.

Lal was the public health chair of the Chicago Mayor’s Youth Commission and is chair of the Illinois High School Democrats. She will study politics and public policy in college.

“Through the program, I gained insight into the inner workings of the Department of Justice, State and Defense, sparking my interest in further involvement,” Lal said. “Ultimately, I aim to foster civic inclusion in our democracy and mobilize young people to ensure every voice is heard.”

Osei, a student member of the Lockport Township High School District 205 Board and a member of the district’s Student Equity Action Committee, said she will study pre-law in college before going to law school. Osei said she’s keeping her career options open, but is leaning toward becoming a civil rights lawyer.

“I am mostly intrigued by civil rights attorney because of just helping the people who are not uplifted by the Constitution or don’t have justice themselves,” she said.

Osei said she’d like to work within the government system, but it was inspiring to hear that her career could naturally unfold that way.

“It kind of gave me some sanctuary in some way to know that I don’t have to have everything planned out,” Osei said. “This experience showed me the different routes of government I can take and showed me that I don’t have to take one pathway towards what I want to do.”

Osei and Lal both said they liked the diversity of the program: in delegates, speakers and discussions.

“Connecting with the 103 other USSYP delegates from across the nation brought the message of optimism for America’s future to life. Despite political differences, every delegate formed tight bonds within the USSYP community,” Lal said.