By Nina Zhang, 18
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Politics had always been another world for me, a world far away from my life of doing homework, performing at school music concerts and downloading hits from my favorite artists. I didn’t really care what the House and Senate were doing, who was bombing whom right now, or how the ethnic conflict even started.

My interest in politics sparked in eighth grade, when I took United States history from a dynamic teacher who made the past, present, and future come alive for me. I loved our discussions about everything from the Revolutionary War to the civil rights movement.

In high school, I joined the Junior State of America (JSA), a political organization for high school students, because I missed the intelligent discussions we had had in eighth grade. I liked the brochure for a fall JSA convention titled "Energizing America," with a picture of lightning striking Capitol Hill. My freshman year, however, I didn’t go to the convention because I was scared of not knowing anything. What if they talked about a policy and I didn’t even know what it was?

So I went to the meetings of the JSA chapter at my school, Whitney High in Cerritos. It was just me and two other students. Our chapter was dying and there weren’t enough people to get a good discussion going, but I could tell that JSA was a good organization.

Initially, I thought it was for debate, but I became excited as I realized it is much more. Instead of just observing politics, you get to leap right in and be involved—debating issues, running for leadership positions within JSA, learning how to write laws. I became president of our chapter.

My sophomore year, we had four regular members. It seemed that most students at my school just didn’t care about politics, which frustrated me. I think students should learn that if something is going on, it might affect you and you can change it, whether it’s driver’s licenses or curfews or college tuition.

That year, some of us attended a few conventions, where we debated with other students from Southern California, Hawaii and Nevada. The topics included gay marriage, gun laws, tax cuts, the Kyoto Protocol and U.S. policy in the Middle East. I found out that the conventions weren’t as intimidating as I thought they might be. At one debate, when nobody else volunteered to make a speech, a girl stood up and said that she had no experience—she had only come to the convention because her sister was involved. We, the audience, encouraged her until she stated one or two basic arguments and we cheered for her when she finished.

At one of the conventions, which was called a "Model Congress," I wrote my first bill about giving more money to the homeless, and had to present it and argue for it, just as elected officials do in Congress. It wasn’t the best bill, but I got my feet wet with the legislative process.

My junior year, I persuaded an enthusiastic history teacher to become our advisor. Our tiny four-person club began to attract more students to meetings to debate issues. I sacrificed sleep and sanity to make sure my job was done, staying up an extra hour at midnight if I forgot to print out homeroom announcements for the next day.

That year I went to all three conventions. One of the things I really liked about them is the organization welcomes all perspectives—liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, Communist, socialist and Green. At conventions, I would see Communist pins and badges in the same room with staunch George W. Bush supporters.

During one debate, a delegate yelled, "Wrong clothes!" to a casually dressed speaker. Another responded, "Wrong attitude!" In JSA, instead of respecting people for their clothes or cars, we admired people who were well-spoken and gave really good arguments.

In addition to running my school’s chapter, I became a "cabinet member" of the group that made decisions for our JSA region and edited the region’s newsletter. I was honored to be handed the responsibility of helping to run the organization. I got to attend a weeklong symposium about Los Angeles politics, while many of my JSA friends went to the Democratic and Republican national conventions, where they received floor passes to hear people like Bill Clinton, George Bush and John Kerry speak.

It was satisfying to see the growth of my school’s JSA chapter in my senior year, reaching 40 active members. We put on some great schoolwide events. Before Election Day, we held debates on stem cell research and Iraq. On Election Day, we passed out Bush and Kerry posters during homeroom to promote our lunchtime debate. A lot of kids took them, even those who weren’t in JSA. About 50 people came to the debate, a mixture of students and teachers, and a lot of them were waving their signs. One of my friends, a hardcore Republican who joined the Marines, argued that we should support the war. Surprisingly, the most strongly opinionated debater was a seventh-grade girl criticizing Bush for undermining the process at the United Nations. It was cute to hear her argue her points. We’d never done anything like that at my school before, and a lot of people liked it.

In the spring, we invited Cerritos city council candidates to speak to students during lunch, and about 40 students and teachers attended. I don’t know if most of my classmates were that captivated, but I think it set a good example. That day, the students saw that even though they might not care, other people do. Maybe they will find it in themselves to care, too.

JSA became one of the gems of my high school experience. The newspaper is now something I must read daily. I enjoy debating with friends and adults about topics like affirmative action and the war in Iraq. I am now part of the world I once knew little about, and I have even brought it to other students. I know my JSA memories will stay with me as I increase my involvement in debate and politics in college at Cornell University and after college.