Apr. 1—SALEM — Kayle Lauck has spent many days of this school year sitting in her classes at McCook Central High School, listening to teachers and learning with her fellow classmates.
But for a few days in March, Lauck was listening to and learning from leaders in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., through her participation in the United States Senate Youth Program. One of 104 students from across the country to take part in the annual event, Lauck attended the yearly conference virtually March 14-17.
Lauck, a senior this year, said she had been eyeing the program for some time, thanks to her interest in civic service.
"This is something that I've been looking at for awhile. I had applied as a junior, so I got a taste of what the application process was like," Lauck told the Mitchell Republic. "I've always been someone who thinks that civic responsibility is something that is really important."
The program was created by a Senate resolution in 1962 and has been sponsored by the Senate and fully funded by The Hearst Foundations since inception. The impetus for the program, according to a release from the program, as stated in Senate testimony is "to increase young Americans' understanding of the interrelationships of the three branches of government, learn the caliber and responsibilities of federally elected and appointed officials and emphasize the vital importance of democratic decision making not only for America, but for people around the world."
Each year the program brings outstanding high school applicants to Washington, D.C., for an intensive week-long study of the federal government and the people who lead it, known as Washington Week. With COVID-19 still a presence around the country, the activities normally held in Washington, D.C. were held in a virtual format. The overall mission of the program is to help instill within each class of student delegates more profound knowledge of the American political process and a lifelong commitment to public service.
The Hearst Foundations also provide each student with a $10,000 undergraduate college scholarship.
Lauck said taking part in the program was a great way to test the waters of something she feels will likely be a part of her life in the future.
"I do plan on serving in some public position in some way to give back. It's always something I've been interested in, politics. And this seems like a really good opportunity to mingle with other individuals and learn more about myself," Lauck said.
Lauck and the rest of the 104 students, including Josie Kaufman, a senior from Sturgis Brown High School who was the second South Dakota delegate, definitely got to mingle with some very experienced leaders on the national and world stage. Sen. John Thune and Sen. Mike Rounds joined the two South Dakotans in representing the state during the event, and Lauck took part in myriad activities. She and her fellow delegates attended online meetings and briefings with senators, the president, a justice of the Supreme Court, leaders of cabinet agencies and senior members of the national media, among others.
"We had private conversations with Thune and Rounds and other delegates from South Dakota. They really took a lot of time, which was nice of them," Lauck said. "We listened to speakers, and almost all of them were interactive and open to questions, so we were able to talk to these famous individuals and get a conversation going."
The virtual format worked out relatively well, despite the scope of the event, Lauck said, though it would have been nice to be able to meet her fellow delegates in person rather than through a computer screen. Still, the event went smoothly and it was easy to take away important lessons from those who were taking part.
"I have gotten to visit Washington, D.C., before, and it would have been nice to be there, I could have met the other delegates in person," Lauck said. "But they did a really good job of organizing the events so we could get it in our basements."
The experience of being able to hold real discussions with elected officials and other people in places of importance in the United States government was an invaluable experience, Lauck said, and one that she will carry with her as she prepares to move on to her college years. She is currently on the fence between attending South Dakota State University and the University of Notre Dame with areas of interest including political science, history and agriculture.
"This week was really an eye-opening experience to talk to individuals who care about the government and who all have very different perspectives on how it should be run," Lauck said.
She feels other students would benefit from the experience as well. Student delegates rank academically in the top 1% of their states among high school juniors and seniors, and many alumni of the program have gone on to leadership roles in government themselves. Such individuals include Senator Susan Collins, the first alumnus to be elected as a U.S. senator, Secretary of Transportation and former mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg and former Senator Cory Gardner.
"This week was really an eye-opening experience to talk to individuals who care about the government and who all have very different perspectives on how it should be run."
— Kayle Lauck
Putting in the work to qualify for the program is worth it, she said, and could set participants on a path to working cooperatively with others and helping forge their own vision of the United States. Anyone who cares about the workings of national and state government can take valuable lessons away from the program, she said.
"I think this week actually gave me some more confidence in my own ability in speaking what I believe," Lauck said. "I can take those lessons from my participation in this to continue to advocate for the things I care about, and to stay passionate about the things that I've grown about the last four years. That broadening of my perspective through this week is going to help me, as well as my career."