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Lockport District 205, CPS students visit White House, meet Biden

Lockport Township High School senior Chelsea Osei was at speech club practice when her phone rang with an email notification.

Anoushka Lal, a senior at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, was returning home from the Chicago Public Schools Civil Rights Scholars program with her mother and younger sister when the email notification appeared on her phone.

The emails informed them that they would be Illinois’ delegates to the 62nd Annual United States Senate Youth Program. Lal, who lives in Lincoln Park, wrote that this message brought tears to his eyes.

“I remember screaming in one of our classes because I got this news. I was very excited about this,” Osei said.

The program aims to increase young Americans’ understanding of the interrelationships between the three branches of government, the responsibilities of federally elected and appointed officials, and the importance of democratic decision-making, according to a program news release.

According to the statement, the program is supported by the Senate and fully funded by the Hearst Foundation. 104 student delegates, including two from each state and two each from the District of Columbia and Department of Defense Educational Activities, are spending a week in Washington. The foundation also awards each student a $10,000 scholarship for undergraduate education.

Osei said the students spent March 2-9 this year in Washington, meeting with government officials and visiting different government institutions.

Osei, who lives in Crest Hill, said her favorite part was meeting independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois; watching the State of the Union address at the White House; and will meet with President Joe Biden later that evening. Osei, an aspiring civil rights lawyer, said he also enjoyed visiting the Department of Justice.

“Being so immersed in so many legal cases, being such a big supporter of civil rights, and I hope to be a civil rights lawyer when I grow up, it was nice to see government officials doing things that I’m also interested in and to see where I might find myself in the future,” Osei said.

United States Senate Youth Program delegates with Senator Bernie Sanders on March 6, 2024. (Chelsea Osei)

Lal said he most enjoyed meeting and talking with Biden, Duckworth, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and journalist Judy Woodruff. Lal said Biden and Buttigieg shared their personal experiences with the youth program and it was powerful.

Lal recalled eating presidential popcorn and M&Ms in the East Room of the White House for the State of the Union and dancing and watching Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” in the middle of the ballroom with all the other delegates.

Lal was the public health chair of the Chicago Mayor’s Youth Commission and is president of the Illinois High School Democrats. He will study politics and public policy at university.

“Through the program, I gained insight into the inner workings of the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense, which piqued my interest in further involvement,” said Lal. “Ultimately, I aim to encourage civic participation in our democracy and mobilize young people to ensure every voice is heard.”

Anouska Lal was one of Illinois' delegates for the 62nd Annual United States Senate Youth Program.  (Anushka Lal)
Anouska Lal was one of Illinois’ delegates for the 62nd Annual United States Senate Youth Program. (Anushka Lal)

Osei, a student member of the Lockport Township High School District 205 Board of Directors and a member of the district’s Student Equity Action Committee, said he will study pre-law in college before attending law school. Osei said he is keeping his career options open but is leaning toward becoming a civil rights attorney.

“I’m mostly attracted to civil rights lawyers because they just help people who aren’t enshrined in the Constitution or who don’t have justice themselves,” he said.

Osei said he wanted to work within the government system, but it was inspiring to hear that his career could naturally develop that way.

“Knowing that not everything had to be planned out gave me a bit of a sanctuary,” Osei said. “This experience showed me different paths of government that I could pursue and showed me that I didn’t have to follow one path toward what I wanted to do.”

Osei and Lal said they liked the program’s diversity in delegates, speakers and discussions.

“Connecting with 103 other USSYP delegates from across the country brought to life the message of optimism about America’s future. Despite political differences, each delegate established close ties within the USSYP community,” Lal said.

akukulka@chicagotribune.com

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