KAILUA-KONA — Throughout her time as a student, Maya Kiana Gee has experienced education from all sides and angles: private school, public school, charter school and home school — even teaching herself for a time.
When she started high school, the Kealakehe High School senior decided to stick with public schools, saying she was passionate about being part of a diverse community.
But she noticed that while everyone started on the same footing freshman year, as time went on, some students, such as those with special needs or are economically disadvantaged, don’t have the support and resources they need to succeed in high school.
“And that kind of made me really upset, because I’m thinking all these students are working at a disadvantage and as hard as they could,” said Gee, 17.
It inspired her, she said, to get involved with the Hawaii State Student Council and be a voice to the Department and Board of Education.
Today, Gee continues to be a voice for the state’s youth as the student representative on the Board of Education.
And in March, Gee will join 103 other student delegates from throughout the country as one of two students from Hawaii at the U.S. Senate Youth Program’s Washington Week in March, a program that recognizes high school students across the country who are inspired to pursue public service as a career.
Gee will be joined from the state by Sean Callahan, a senior at Iolani School in Honolulu, according to a release from the Senate Youth Program.
Each year, two high school juniors or seniors are selected from each state, Washington, D.C., and the Department of Defense Education Activity as delegates to Washington Week.
Washington Week, scheduled for March 3-10, is packed with tours and presentations to give student delegates the opportunity to experience government and policymaking at the highest level. In addition to attending briefings and meetings with senators, the president and a U.S. Supreme Court justice, delegates also have an opportunity to meet with cabinet members, leaders of federal agencies and members of the national media.
“This in-depth exposure to leadership at the highest levels,” states the program’s website, “is precisely what fuels and sustains the delegates’ commitment to making a difference in their country, communities and schools.”
Students also get a $10,000 college scholarship to the university or college of their choice.
Gee said she’s excited to meet all the other student delegates who will join her in Washington, D.C., and represent her state with Callahan.
“What I think we just need to be sure to bring is that — because of the Native Hawaiian population here and all the different cultures and diversity here — that we really emphasize that when we travel to D.C.,” she said.
She said she wants to hear from other delegates about what issues are facing their respective states as well as their perspectives on those issues and possible solutions.
Looking at Hawaii, she talked about improving the school system and combating the high turnover rate among teachers.
“So I think making sure that we can get more licensed teachers in our school system and also teachers that are able to stay in Hawaii is going to be really important and give a lot of students more stability,” she said.
She’s also looking forward to the chance to meet Hawaii Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz and hear what they have to say about the issues, particularly education policy.
“I kind of want to just see where they stand on where they think the future is going to change within, I would say, about the next 10 years,” she said.
And during a scheduled meeting with President Donald Trump, she said, she’d like to ask where Hawaii’s place is in his vision for the country on issues like international relations and the economy.
“In his big picture that he has, where does Hawaii fit?” Gee said. “Because we are not necessarily part of the continental United States, but yet there’s all these different things going on with North Korea, with the recent false alarm with the missiles.”
“I think it’s just really interesting how he now views how Hawaii is going to come into play on a national level.”
Locally, she said, she believes the way youth engage in politics and policy is changing for the better, especially at Kealakehe, where she said students are beginning to get more involved in politics, learn the process and keep up with the news.
“They say that (millennials) advocate for something but at the end of the day they won’t come out to vote — I think that’s definitely going to change at the next election with my generation,” she said.
Hirono in a statement congratulated Gee and Callahan for the honor.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, who served as co-chair of the U.S. Senate Youth Program in 2016, said in a statement that she looks forward each year to meeting the state’s student delegates as they learn about the various parts of government during Washington Week.
“I hope that Maya and Sean will strengthen their commitment to public service and giving back to the Hawaii community.”