December 5, 2023
State Superintendent Tony Thurmond Announces California High School Student Representatives for the 2024 U.S. Senate Youth Program
SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond today announced two outstanding high school students to represent California in the 62nd annual United States Senate Youth Program (USSYP). Aaron Combs of San Diego (San Diego County), a senior at Canyon Crest Academy in the San Dieguito Union High School District, and Emi Sakamoto of Culver City (Los Angeles County), a senior at Culver City High School in the Culver City Unified School District, were selected for their exceptional leadership skills, noteworthy commitments to their schools and communities, and academic and extracurricular achievements as California’s delegates in this highly competitive program.
“I am incredibly proud of and impressed by these extraordinary students, who are doing so much in their schools and communities to make a difference in the lives of others. Their significant accomplishments speak to their impressive character and dedication,” Thurmond said. “They will make excellent representatives for California.”
Thurmond also named two alternates in the event one or both delegates are unable to attend the program. The first alternate is Mahee Haswani of El Dorado Hills (El Dorado County), a senior at Oak Ridge High School in the El Dorado Union High School District. The second alternate is Laila Ali of Modesto (Stanislaus County), a senior at Joseph A. Gregori High School in the Modesto City High School District.
“I am encouraged and inspired by all four students’ strong leadership and passion for making positive changes through advocacy work on issues such as racial equity, mental health awareness, the environment, and social justice,” said Thurmond. "Our future is in good hands with leaders such as Aaron, Emi, Mahee, and Laila.”
The delegates and alternates are scheduled to be recognized by the State Board of Education during its January 18–19, 2024, meeting in Sacramento.
Sponsored by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the USSYP provides a yearly opportunity for selected students to gain an in-depth view of the U.S. Senate and the federal government overall as well as a deeper understanding of the interrelationship of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches, according to the national USSYP website , and provides a true partnership among government leaders, state and national education leaders, and America’s future leaders. The program provides a foundation of knowledge and encouragement for those considering a future in public service on the local, state, or national level.
Two student leaders from each state, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity each receive a $10,000 undergraduate scholarship and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for Washington Week to meet and learn from high-level appointed and elected government officials from March 2–9, 2024.
Students must be nominated by their high school principals to participate in the program. To qualify for the program, high school juniors or seniors must be actively serving in an elected or appointed leadership position where they represent a constituency in organizations related to student government, education, public affairs, and/or community service as well as express an interest in pursuing a career in public service.
A selection committee from the California Department of Education (CDE) reviews eligible nominees, and the students are selected based on the quality of their application, demonstrated leadership abilities, academic achievement, involvement in school and community activities, extracurricular activities, and commitment to public service.
For more information, please visit the CDE USSYP web page.
The following are synopses compiled from their applications:
Aaron serves as the first Youth Ambassador for the San Diego International Sister Cities Association, which represents San Diego as citizen diplomats to 24 countries around the world. He organized a youth panel at the Sister Cities International US–Mexico Mayor’s Community Summit, introduced San Diego to over 30 Maasai Chiefs in Maasailand, and participated on a panel at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He is a Student Board Member for District 5 on the San Diego County Office of Education and served on the School Site Council as the youngest chair and first neurodivergent student elected. He is Founder and Executive Director of Students For Attention, a student-led nonprofit organization whose mission is to redesign educational systems for neurodivergent students through Neurodivergent Student Alliances, and he was appointed as the youngest-ever research advisor at the UC Riverside Autism Center. Aaron was selected as one of 100 winners from 50,000 global applicants for the Rise for the World Global Award and received the Yale Bassett Award for his work with the Maasai and a Certificate of Achievement for the Princeton Prize in Race Relations for helping to advance equity for BIPOC neurodivergent students in San Diego. He plans to major in environmental studies and comparative studies in race and ethnicity to specialize in educational and environmental equity, followed by a career in strategy and management consulting for public sector/government agencies. His passion is ensuring that our nation supports sustainable, inclusive livelihoods, narrowing the equity divide for underserved communities.
Emi serves as the 76th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for the California YMCA Youth and Government Program, where she presides over the Supreme Court program and spearheads initiatives related to social justice and civic engagement. She is the Culver City High School District (CCHSD) student liaison, providing feedback on health textbook adoption, focusing on mental health language from the student perspective, and creating an action plan to improve the school environment through diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a member of the district’s curriculum committee, she is leading a pilot project to include compulsory and comprehensive mental health education for K–12. She is Co-President of Speech and Debate and a staff writer at the school newspaper, writing opinion pieces on social issues. She is the lead advocate and Treasurer for Vote 16 USA, a youth enfranchisement initiative to lower the voting age to 16 in municipal elections, and Founder and Executive Director of Poetry4Progress.org, a nonprofit international youth literary magazine dedicated to promoting the intersection of poetry and political activism. She was recognized for her curriculum advocacy in mental health with the Culver City 20 Under 20 Award and the Amplify Student Voice Award from CCHSD. She placed third out of 90 delegates as a Justice in the National Judicial Competition and was named L.A. Youth Poet Laureate Finalist, Urban Word NYC, a spoken word poetry competition. Emi is committed to equity and giving back to her community. She plans to major in political science, followed by law school, and someday run for elected office.
Mahee Haswani is the Youth Commissioner and Co-Chair of the El Dorado County Youth Commission, representing the voice of 30,000 students to county government with a primary focus on mental health. She was elected as Secretary of State for California Youth and Government, where she coordinated elections for 2000 delegates, reaching the highest-ever turnout of 97% voting, and spearheaded a statewide voter engagement initiative. She is Captain of Speech and Debate at her school, served as a Federalist Party Leader at Girls State, and serves on the California Youth Advocacy Network Board of Directors. Her community service includes serving as President of Hands4Hope (H4H)—Youth Making a Difference, which empowers youth in leadership and service; helping coordinate student visits with local assisted living facilities at Sunshine for Senior Citizens; and tutoring elementary and middle school students. A National Merit Semifinalist and AP Scholar with Distinction, Mahee is also an American Legion Oratorical National Semifinalist and National Speech Debate Association National Semifinalist in Congressional Debate and is a recipient of the Certificate of Merit State Honors in Piano. Mahee hopes to major in public policy and pursue a career in government relations to help bridge the gap between the public and private sector, focusing on diversity and inclusion, sustainability, and other issues impacting stakeholders.
Laila Ali is Founder and President of the National Honor Society (NHS) at Joseph A. Gregori High School. She created the first NHS chapter at her school to provide more resources to lower income students and show members how to utilize the NHS program. She is Founder and President of the Asian American Association at her school, which celebrates cultural diversity on campus, and Team Captain of Speech and Debate. She was a Girls State delegate and was one of two senators representing California at Girls Nation. Her community service includes Vote Me, raising awareness of the importance of being an educated voter; Connect in Place, where she teaches classes on Arabic and international politics; and interning for the Mayor of Modesto and the District Attorney’s Office. An AP Scholar with Distinction, Laila has received numerous awards, including the National Rural and Small-Town Award from the College Board, recognizing her service in a small, rural community; Most Valuable Professional for Mock Trial; and the Daughter of the American Revolution Good Citizen Award. She was the only female from her school to receive the latter award. Laila plans to major in political science and government with a focus on ethics. Her ultimate goal is to become a political activist and a public servant committed to uplifting her community and marginalized groups.
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Tony Thurmond —
State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Communications Division, Room 5602, 916-319-0818, Fax 916-319-0100