Not many 17 year-olds have had the opportunity to meet the president of the United States.
Aluana Sessoms-Hall, a junior at Enochs High School, had just this prestigious honor a few weeks ago through the Girls Nation program, a service of the American Legion Auxiliary. Girls Nation, along with its counterpart, Boys Nation, is an annual weeklong camp that educates those going into their senior year about American government.
Preceding Girls Nation are the Girls State programs, one from each state. Each state sends two "senators" to represent themselves at Girls Nation. Those who attend Girls Nation are given the opportunity to meet with officials representing their state, as well as the president.
Aluana's journey started in the Enochs speech and debate team. A team of interviewers was sent from the American Legion Auxiliary, a branch of the American Legion, whose goal is to create an "atmosphere of fellowship, patriotism, peace and security." Aluana was chosen to represent her school at the Girls State event. When speaking of the ALA District 12, Unit 74, "I have to thank them, they're the ones that chose me, they called me up and encouraged me. They got the whole ball rolling."
At the Girls State camp, Aluana ran and was elected for the position of governor. The campaigning process taught her and the other attendees about the inner workings of American government, and what it means to be a politician. Aluana, who would like to be a lawyer, says that the camp made her more open to a political career, but that, "Being in a campaign didn't seem very fun."
Aluana was one of two chosen "senators" who were sent to represent California at Girls Nation, which was held in a Washington, D.C., suburb. In California, the senators are chosen by the counselors; however, the process varies by state. While attending Girls Nation, the students continued to campaign for different positions as they learned more about American history and government by touring sites around the capitol. There are two political parties represented in the Girls Nation, the Nationalists and the Federalists.
"If you want to make your country better, it prepares you for actually doing that in the real world," Aluana said.
Each state arranged for its future leaders to meet its current ones. Aluana and her Californian counterparts from Boys Nation met with Senator Barbara Boxer, as well Dianne Feinstein's aide, David A. Hantman.
After touring some of the nation's most famous and historically important buildings, the participants of both Girls Nation and Boys Nation gathered in the East Wing of the White House to meet President Barack Obama.
"It didn't feel real
when he finally came through the middle doors, everyone started clapping and screaming, and some people were even crying. He gave us a speech, encouraging us to keep on doing what we do. He said that we can make changes in America, not just through politics, but also through other areas. He's a real personable guy. He came around and shook all of our hands.
"I told him that I was from the Central Valley, and he said 'I know that's an area of California that's having a lot of troubles right now. Good job for what you're doing.' And I was at a loss for words."
Aluana said memories of the experience will last a lifetime.
"What made it fun was that everyone had true, founded opinions about the issues. It was just the closest group of girls. They literally made this the best summer of my life," Aluana said.
The groups also visited a D.C.-area Veterans Affairs Hospital, where they served those who had been wounded in fighting for the United States. The students were surprised by the amount of young people at the hospital.
"I think the oldest person we met was 25," Aluana said. "Usually you just donate money to an effort, but here we talked with them and really tried to get to know them."
The camps, both State and Nation, provided Aluana and other attendees with an unrivaled experience in government, service and teamwork. But Aluana said she couldn't have done it without the support of God, her family and friends.
"We didn't think about what our party believed in, we thought about what was best for America," Aluana said. "We saw that a lot of the bills that we voted on got almost a majority vote because people truly thought they were for the best. It would be great if the real senators and the real politicians could actually do that. We didn't understand how they couldn't do it, because we found it so easy to do it amongst ourselves."