Youth Radio: 15-year-old meets the presidentby Iman Fears, Minnesota Public Radio,
Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
Iman Fears was one of two teens chosen from Minnesota to attend the U.S. Senate Youth Program. She spent a week in Washington D.C. in early March conducting interviews and recording her thoughts in an audio diary. Fears, 15, is a junior at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists.
My life is doing plays. I never really saw myself in politics. I flew to Washington and I didn't quite know what to expect. The Senate Youth program is a competitive scholarship program sponsored by the Senate and the Hearst Foundation.
The 104 delegates selected were a very smart and driven group -- their passionate political debate began as soon as we got to the hotel and lasted all week long.
I felt a bit out of place, as if I was the only kid there who hadn't dreamed of becoming a senator since the age of 5. I was still very excited however.
President Obama was on the itinerary. With the big showdown on health care reform going on, we weren't sure that he would have time to show up, but he was all we could talk about.
I was dazzled by the splendor of the Mayflower Hotel where they put us up. The Grand Ballroom where we took our meals had about 18 chandeliers. We would sightsee, and get inside access to the Pentagon, the State Department, the Supreme Court, the Capitol and finally the White House.
Diary entry: March 9, 2010
Probably the coolest part of this trip is the VIP treatment we get. So we'll be walking into a major building and there'll be like 104 of us all in our business casual attire. We'll have people around us that say, "Why can't we go into the building too, with them?" And the building staff will say, "Oh well, this is the U.S. Senate Youth Program, and they're on a very tight schedule and we have to move them along."
I feel kind of bad, but at the same time, we get to tour the White House! I'm really, really excited. I've never been inside. I didn't think normal people were allowed inside. But I guess we're not normal people.
One of the names I was most excited to see on our agenda was Sonia Sotomayor, the newest Supreme Court justice.
Diary entry: March 9, 2010
We got to meet Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The first thing I noticed about her was this huge smile on her face and how casual and laid back she was. She walks in and she's kind of shorter, and we're all standing up and she just goes, "Hey guys!"
She has us all sit down with this huge smile on her face. And she walks down aisle to see our faces, said she was so proud of us and then she said she wouldn't have had a chance to do this in high school. One of the delegates asked her how she felt about how being a minority was a really big barrier to her. She said she never thought she was a minority until high school.
Sotomayor once said that while she was a student at Princeton University, there were so few people of color that she felt like an alien. I really identified with that. When I was younger, I had a tough time socially because I was always the only black kid in my class, and also the youngest because I skipped a grade in elementary school.
Now that I'm a teenager, I feel as if I have to overcome a whole new set of assumptions; such as, because I'm a black woman, I'll be loud or a bad student. Seeing a woman of color like Sotomayor overcome the stereotypes inspires me.
Shaking hands with senators
There was a reception so that we could meet our senators and I got to interview Amy Klobuchar. I asked her what it takes to make a career in public service a reality. She told me, "perseverance."
"I always tell people my first job in politics was doing the inventory for Vice President Mondale -- all the furniture of his office staff -- which meant crawling under the desks and writing down the serial numbers," Klobuchar said. "I did that for three weeks as an intern. My next job was as a U.S. senator in Washington, so it turned out pretty well!"
I also met Sen. Al Franken at the reception, but he had to run off so I interviewed him by phone later. I asked him how I could balance my new interest in politics with my love of the performing arts.
"You can actually kind of combine those. I don't know if you've ever watched politicians, but some of them combine the performing arts with their politics," said Franken. "But on the serious side, they really aren't mutually exclusive."
"I don't want this week to ever end"
I got the chance to meet 103 of the smartest and most talented -- but also the most fun -- kids I'd ever meet, and formed friendships I hope will last a lifetime. After the Senate reception, we had a dance party at the hotel until midnight, which would have made us sleepy the next morning, but we were too excited for the next speaker on our agenda.
Diary entry: March 11, 2010
We just met President Barack Obama. It was probably the most amazing experience I'd ever had. The most amazing experience anyone had ever had.
We were escorted into the White House and we saw him way at end of the hallway, just like a silhouette and I couldn't tell if it was him. But I saw this really tall guy with big ears and I was like, "Oh my gosh," and we all shrieked. Everyone in the entire audience shrieked and we all tried frantically to regain our composure.
Then Barack Obama entered the room, flanked by all these Secret Service agents. But he was in the room. He looked just like he did on TV, that was our first observation.
I was sitting in the front row, so he was literally three feet away from me. And he looked at us and said, "My, you all are a better-looking bunch than the real Senate!"
One girl asked him what the biggest piece of advice he would give to us would be. He responded: "Advice to become president? Well, um, be careful what you wish for."
The most memorable thing he told us was, "Don't spend your time thinking about what you want to be. Think about what you want to do."
So, I realized I had spent the entire trip thinking about what I wanted to be when I'm older. But what's really important is that I'm driven to do things, not just be something that sounds good.
I'm back from Washington. It's difficult to adjust to real life after the fairy tale of Washington Week. Do I know for sure what I want to do now? No. But I do know that seeing Justice Sotomayor and President Obama make it in Washington shows me that as a young woman of color, I may have a future there.
- All Things Considered, 03/29/2010, 4:50 p.m.