You might think that studying during the summer at one of the most prestigious universities in the world or traveling to the other side of the continent to learn leadership skills might be enough for some high school students, but if you are talking about Secaucus High School Junior State of America club members, you would be wrong.
These students are following up one of the busiest summers of their lives with plans for an exhaustive 2013-2014 school year. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Junior State of America is a student-run organization that reaches from local chapters to the national level. It provides high school students the forum to voice their opinion on current events that they care about and heightens the students’ political awareness, sharpens their public speaking skills, and allows them to become more involved with their community, through attending events or volunteering.
“Most members agree that it is a life-changing organization.” – Bishoy Said
The local chapter
Secaucus High JSA adviser Michael Gehm said it is the largest student-run organization in the country. He is an Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher and group adviser for 20 years.
“All of the events they go to, all of the events they run, are entirely planned by the kids,” he said.
The Secaucus chapter is 120 strong, but it isn’t composed of all political science and history students as one might expect. In fact, the group’s participants are very diverse.
“We have kids from every part of the school,” said Chapter President Bethany Mancuso, including all four academies SHS provides.
“A lot of the students who join JSA may not want to go into politics, but want to be involved,” noted Said.
“It’s like letting your voice be heard,” said Vice President Maya Reyes. “Letting you voice your opinion.”
Back into the groove
With school back in session two and a half weeks now, the club is full swing, planning not only fall, but spring events as well. These include a regional convention in Princeton in October, a regional conference in Woodbridge in November, and the group’s annual trip to Washington, D.C.
One of the organization’s biggest projects is writing legislative bills for its “Mock Congress.” Animal rights and term limits have been among the club’s focuses in the past. One of their pieces, a modification to the Americans with Disability Act almost actually had legislative pick up, according to Gehm.
Annual elections are a months-long planning affair, and the students will be working on that before they know it. The elections are held in May, so that an orderly transition of responsibility can take place in June, before the school year ends.
But before the end comes, the beginning must happen. So the group held its annual welcome dinner on Tuesday, Sept. 17, to introduce themselves as well as attract new members.
All of this follows the busiest of summers, and the one that helped shape many of the officers now in place.
The Secaucus High School chapter experienced a productive summer, as many members attended prestigious summer programs, and some were elected to the JSA Mid-Atlantic State Cabinet.
Mancuso and Reyes obtained positions on the New Jersey Region Mayoral Cabinet as chief of staff and lieutenant gubernatorial cabinet as an expansion agent, respectively.
Mancuso was thrilled upon hearing the news.
“I [knew I] would be involved with not only my chapter, but with the entire New Jersey Region, and that means a lot to me due to the impact JSA has had on my life; both personally and as a student,” she said. Reyes was also excited upon receiving news of her position, saying she was "joyful and grateful they selected me."
During the summer, Reyes was selected to attend the JSA’s Montezuma Leadership Summit in Los Gatos, Calif. The program provides JSA members the opportunity to attend a number of workshops to learn about the Junior State of America’s history and leadership principles.
“Montezuma was a life-changing experience,” Reyes said. “It was a great opportunity to meet JSA leaders from around the country who shared with me their ideas to help strengthen my chapter and become more active in the community.”
Princeton summer school
Reyes and Abubakr Ahmed were accepted into a JSA Summer School at Princeton University. The summer school is an educational program created by the JSA which provides a snapshot of the world of politics while allowing students to benefit from an Ivy League academic atmosphere.
There was a myriad of classes available to the students, with both enrolling in the AP United States Government class.
“(The class) heightened my awareness toward the American government, allowing me to become a better citizen,” Ahmed said. It also taught him that “hard work and determination are key factors in life.”
JSA also offered a shorter four-day program at Princeton which members Suhail Kapoor, Vinit Parikh, and Said attended. The institute focused on the subjects of leadership and politics in New Jersey.
The institute attendees also visited the New Jersey State House in Trenton, where they were given the opportunity to meet and question powerful New Jersey leaders in the Senate and Assembly House Chambers. They included State Sen. Stephen Sweeney and former N.J. Gov. James Florio.
“The institute not only allowed the students to express their opinions on recent political matters with leaders of our state, but also with fellow classmates that shared a similar passion and awareness on politics.,” Said said.
“In between the interactive lectures, students enjoyed meeting people with different backgrounds, hearing new opinions, and making new friends,” said JSA New Jersey Region Vice Mayor Angela Taylor.
For more information on the Junior State of America, visit http://jsa.org/.
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.