Territorial Students Take Washington By Storm

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015 @ 11:30AM

For 24 years, the Junior State of America has partnered with the Office of Insular Affairs at the US Department of the Interior to serve students from the US Territories and Freely Associated States. During a trip this February to participate in the Annual JSA Winter Congress Legislative Simulation, JSA had the privilege of sharing our nation’s capital and all its excitement with 14 of the students supported by this partnership.

For those who have even a passing interest in the big ideas of American politics or the defining women and men of our history, a visit to the city of Washington, DC is a powerful experience. From the moment you arrive at the airport or Amtrak’s Union Station, the city’s bustle pulls you in. Might that man in the dark suit hustling for a departing Amtrak train be the Vice President someday? Could that woman in the corner, huddled over her laptop and speaking in clipped, hushed tones into her cellphone be negotiating a bill that will hit the Floor of the House of Representatives any day now?

During their stay, the DOI Winter Congress JSA Scholars visited the National Archives, the Smithsonian, the Newseum and many other sites—but not merely as tourists and bystanders. Every student had the chance to meet with officials representing their islands, including Esther Kia’aina, Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas at the US Department of the Interior.

Students asked questions and provided their own opinions during these conversations, even prompting Assistant Secretary Kia’aina to call upon experts whose “desks” at the Department of the Interior could best answer their compelling questions and address their thoughtful policy perspectives. Later, when the students spoke to their respective Congressional Representatives, Ambassadors and senior staff at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it was easy to see these young people as they saw themselves—a new generation of leaders for their islands, determined to use this trip to learn as much as they could about how to make a positive difference for their communities.

At the end of the week, the students put those skills into practice as participants in the annual JSA Mid-Atlantic Winter Congress—an event which hosts more than 1,000 students who present, debate and vote on bills they’ve researched and composed themselves.

JSA Program Director for the US Territories and Freely Associated States—and a JSA alumnus himself—Ed Banayat was moved and impressed by the courage and skill of students representing his programmatic region. “The attendance [at Winter Congress] easily tripled the student bodies at some of the students’ high schools,” he explained. “They had the chance to interact with peers not only from their home islands, but also with students throughout the US Territories and Freely Associated States and from the Mid-Atlantic USA mainland. It was overwhelming and intimidating for them at times, but the students bonded with each other over a short period of time and enjoyed speaking with students with differing viewpoints on so many issues. Many forged friendships that I believe will last. As the first group left early Monday morning, one student from the Virgin Islands commented, ‘I miss them already.'”

At the end of the trip, the students were energized by their experiences and new friendships. “This is a moment I will remember for the rest of my life,” said Ionatana Tuitasi from American Samoa. The American Samoa delegation had successfully defended a bill in both houses of Winter Congress and then had the opportunity to present their bill to American Samoa’s Governor, First Lady, Attorney General and several members of the Governor’s senior staff over lunch. “I cannot wait to get home and tell all of my classmates about the meeting and how the Governor was impressed with my bill.  It meant a lot to me to personally to thank him for my education and for approving funds to improve the facilities at my school.”

We look forward to hosting Tuitasi’s classmates—and many more students throughout the US Territories and Freely Associated States—this June and July at JSA Summer School, and during our next Winter Congress trip in February 2016.

Ed Banayat has seen JSA from all sides. As Program Director for the US Territories, he has exposed hundreds of students to the power of civic education and brought dozens to the mainland for the first time. As Registrar for the Northern California Territory and Admissions Director for the Stanford Summer School, he played a vital programming role in the organization’s most active region. As a student, he was Vice President of the Elk Grove High School JSA Chapter, developing a thriving culture of democratic participation among his peers. Outside of JSA, he has held a variety of roles rooted in education and community development, including Marketing Director for Kaplan, Inc., President/CEO of the Millbrae Chamber of Commerce, and small business consultant. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara and an MBA from Notre Dame de Namur University, and spends his spare time boxing, biking, surfing, snowboarding and playing rugby.

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