Many high school seniors spend the final months of their high school careers enjoying time with friends and thinking about the prom. But three passionate seniors at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 in East Liberty are still hard at work, continuing to lead high school students across the state through Youth and Government Pennsylvania.
In April at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Erik Rauterkus, 18, of South Side was elected youth governor of Pennsylvania; Ben Junker, 17, of Friendship became the organization's lieutenant governor; and Anna Vitti, 17, of Highland Park, editor-in-chief of the press corps.
"This is a rare occurrence that three of the top five kids are from the same school. It definitely has to do with the leadership of those three in building a strong club at their school, but they also had to build allies across the state in order to get elected into those positions," said Lydia Mitchell, CEO of the Pennsylvania YMCA, which sponsors the statewide program.
Having most of the state leaders come from a single high school is unprecedented, she added.
Obama is a certified International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (grades 6-10) and Diploma Programme (grades 11-12), a curriculum that encourages students to become involved in service and the community.
That fits right in with the goals of Youth and Government, which aims to engage young students in service and to raise political awareness.
Pennsylvania is one of 39 states and the District of Columbia that participate in Youth and Government, an organization that serves more than 50,000 students. Roughly 900 of those belong to the Pennsylvania chapter.
Erik, Ben and Anna govern 37 clubs across the state.
Erik believes that the zeal for real political change and youth involvement as well as a good set of role models helped the YAG members at Obama to excel.
"Success breeds success and, as a freshman, I saw the head of the club who was lieutenant governor of the state, and all I wanted was to be governor, so I slowly worked my way up. Every year our club got bigger and bigger," he said.
Ben agreed. "One thing I think is really different about our program is that most YAG programs are run through the local YMCA, but ours is a school club, so I hang out with these kids all the time. It keeps us more interested and engaged.
"What I also think makes our club different is that we're one out of only two clubs represented in Pennsylvania that is from the city. This allows us to have a unique viewpoint that makes us confront different problems specific to Pittsburgh," Ben added.
Wayne Walters, principal of Pittsburgh Obama, said "I think that YAG is very aligned with the International Baccalaureate program we offer at this school because it looks at developing skill sets of students to be inquirers and reflective and creative thinkers. So whenever there are opportunities for students to be leaders, take civic responsibility and really get engaged in larger things, that's always strongly encouraged. I'm really proud of our students."
Before being elected to their positions, Erik, Ben and Anna participated in a three-day statewide conference in Harrisburg, where delegates debated and voted on bills, acting as a mock state government. Like other YAG conferences, the bills that pass in committee are taken to the floor of the House or Senate for full debate and vote, according to the YAG Pennsylvania website.
"The statewide program is so great; I've never met a kid who went to the statewide program and didn't like it," Erik said. "We use the Capitol Building and once we're there, the legislative branch writes the bills, we debate the bills, the judicial branch debates the Supreme Court case and the press corps writes the paper every day."
The three Obama students will end their terms at this year's conference on April 19-21, where their successors will be elected.
One of Erik's last projects with YAG will be to work with the Pennsylvania YMCA to jump-start a program titled "Service to the Seaboard," which allows Pennsylvania youth to take a 10-day trip along the East Coast that combines study of American history with service projects.
With these projects, "we've been trying to bring this new sense of service, and I think we've been really successful with it," Erik said. "Additionally, there's this whole idea that youth in this country need to get more involved with politics. In the 2008 election, only 51 percent of the eligible voters in the 18-30-year-old range actually voted. I think that those are really low rates, so we need to get more youth involvement in politics because our voice isn't heard as much in decision making."
Erik, Anna and Ben plan to use the political awareness, service appreciation and public speaking skills that they learned by being leaders in YAG.
Erik will start his first year at Swarthmore College in the fall. Anna and Ben are still awaiting their college decisions.
"The purpose of this program is to get youth in the country and youth in the state more engaged in their communities and in politics," Erik said. "I think if we start moving in that direction, it will be really good for our country."
Noel Um: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1964.