KAILUA-KONA — When the U.S. Senate Youth Program’s Washington Week kicked off at the beginning of March, Kealakehe High School senior Maya Kiana Gee said one of the first things she noticed was the passion of her fellow delegates and the perspectives they all brought with them from their own states.
“I think for me it was really interesting, because coming from a state that’s so Democrat, it was really refreshing and also kind of shifted my paradigm hearing other conservative viewpoints as well,” she said. “And it was really nice to have those civil conversations with people.”
Gee, 17, was one of 104 student delegates to take part in Washington Week, held from March 3-10, as part of the U.S. Senate Youth Program, which recognizes high school students across the country who are inspired to pursue a career in public service.
Each year, two seniors are selected from each state, Washington, D.C., and the Department of Defense Education Activity as delegates to Washington Week, which gives program participants the opportunity to meet with the federal government’s top leadership, including President Donald Trump, and engage with and hear from lawmakers and others from inside and outside the U.S. government.
Gee was joined by another Hawaii student — Sean Callahan, a senior at Iolani School in Honolulu — during the program.
And as she listened to the experiences of her peers, she said, it was also an opportunity for her to offer them insight into Hawaii’s history and her experience in the state.
“It was really interesting, because a lot of people don’t really know about the overthrow and they don’t really know a lot about native Hawaiian culture and all the different ethnicities here and how we’re kind of like a giant salad bowl,” she said. “So it’s really interesting to provide that perspective, because a lot of people don’t have that on the mainland.”
She was also able to bring up issues of socioeconomic inequality in this state, which has a very different dynamic here in Hawaii in how it affects different populations.
Gee, who serves as student representative on the Hawaii Board of Education, also had the opportunity to meet with counterparts from Vermont and Iowa during her trip.
Together, they shared insight into their own respective school districts, including the problems they face, which Gee said was an opportunity to hear about the status of education in those states and share Hawaii’s story as well.
“And I think for me that is continuing to empower and inspire me to continue in Hawaii education,” she said.
Another major highlight of the week, she said, came during a conversation delegates had with Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, who spoke about the status of minorities in today’s America, whether Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has come to be, and the socioeconomic standing of minority communities.
“It was not only just knowing his story and knowing what he went through, but the fact that he was knocked down so many times by other people around him and how he kind of just kept persevering through it, I think it gave us — especially those of us who are minorities — it gave us a lot of hope,” Gee said, “that even with the current political climate we’re in, that there’s still hope.”
Gee noted another standout opportunity was when she introduced Alan Miller, founder and CEO of The News Literacy Project.
That initiative focuses on working with teachers and reporters to educate students on how to separate fact and fiction in the media and give students the tools to competently engage with the news.
Given her keen interest in education and education policy, Gee said, it was something she found really impactful.
“Because these days, you never really know what media can be considered ‘good media,’” she said, “especially on the national level, I think.”
With all of the skills and tools she picked up during her trip, Gee said she’s committed to using the knowledge she gathered to better her state in the future.
“For me, going to D.C., and seeing what I saw and also picking up all these different perspectives and ideas and kind of really seeing what’s going on in other states and bringing that all back here is just opening more doors for Hawaii that we may have never really thought of before,” she said. “So I think it’s always keeping us innovative, always keeping us future thinking, also looking at different ideas and different models that might work for our state.”