Before last week, two Warwick teenage girls had never imagined getting into politics. But after spending a week with Girls State, one will have the opportunity to meet the president.
Girls State is an American Legion-sponsored event that takes high school girls from each state and creates a mock state legislature for one week in the summer. Last week, 16-year-olds Jenna O’Connell and Jennifer Scotti joined with other high school girls from around the state at Roger Williams University to take part in a mock legislature. About 20,000 young women participate in the program throughout the nation each summer.
Barbara Golde, the senior counselor for Girls State RI, said “the experience helps educate young women about their duties as U.S. citizens and encourages their participation in the democratic process.”
She continued, “We set up our own ‘Little Rhody Girls State’ senate.”
Each state tailors its program to accurately recreate its government.
The weeklong event has the young women attending conferences, listening to guest speakers (such as Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts and Congressman David Cicilline), debating, holding mock trials, proposing and vetoing bills, and writing speeches.
Jennifer and Jenna attend Warwick Vets High School and wished more students from their school could have known about the program. Jenna learned of the program through a family friend and convinced her friend Jennifer to accompany her. They admit they were scared at first of the seriousness of the program, but quickly warmed up to it.
“It was so cool!” said Jenna, “we had three or four guest speakers and got to discuss bills.”
Jennifer called the program “very detail oriented” and found the legislature etiquette “so complex!”
The male version of Girls State, appropriately titled Boys State, runs alongside of their female counterparts.
“We had joint sessions [with Boys State] where we debated bills,” said Jenna
Otherwise, the Girls State and Boys State participants were not allowed to communicate.
Sara Carpenter, who lives in Warwick and attends Prout High School, also represented the city.
“[Jenna, Jennifer and Sara] were very active in the program and I was very proud of them,” said Golde.
The program began in the 1930s in Washington, D.C. and Delaware, and since 1948 has been a major component of the American Auxiliary’s Americanism curriculum, Golde explained.
Girls Nation, Girls State on the national level, will take place July 21-28 in Washington, D.C., and Jennifer, along with Zoe Simanski from Middletown High School, will represent Rhode Island.
“I feel so lucky!” said Jennifer, who was elected to represent Rhode Island by her peers.
“It’s so nice [at Girls State], everyone gets together so well,” she added.
Jennifer will tour D.C. and meet the president while in the capital.
Both Jennifer and Jenna felt fortunate for the opportunity to take part in the free program. In order to be chosen, applicants must be a rising high school senior, be interested in government, have strong leadership skills and an above average scholastic standing.
“It is a great program, [but] we do need money to support it,” said Golde.
Warwick American Legion William Shields Jr. Unit #43 sponsored Jenna, Jennifer and Sara.
Golde added, “Anyone wishing to sponsor a girl … can contact any local American Legion Auxiliary Unit, we make sure a girl goes.”
The Legion also offers a $1,000 scholarship to one Girls State Senator from each state, with the opportunity to be awarded an additional $20,000 over four years.