By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (March 10, 2023) -- In March, 104 high school students from around the nation will gather in Washington, D.C., to participate in the U.S. Senate Youth Program, now in its 61st year. This year also marks the first in-person participation in the program in three years due to the COVID--19 pandemic.
Joining them in the nation's capital are 17 U.S. military officers who will act as advisors and mentors for the students as they travel throughout the capital learning about the inner workings of government and meeting with the leaders who make it happen.
Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Strategic and Community Engagement, Melanie Fonder Kaye, oversees DOD's annual support of the USSYP, which includes the competitive selection of military officers to serve as mentors, hosting the participants at the Pentagon and providing ceremonial musical and color guard support.
"The USSYP has long motivated the next generation of leaders on the importance of public service," she said. "And through our military mentors, participants learn firsthand about DOD's mission, the people who serve in and out of uniform and how national security works with our domestic institutions to deliver policy solutions at home and abroad."
Army Capt. Joseph L. Puntoriero, who serves with Special Operations Command Central at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, was immediately drawn to volunteer after learning about the program. Having attended similar programs in his youth had left a lasting impression on him. Now, he said, he'll be able to do the same.
"As a military mentor, during the program, I will be acting as both a bridge and compass for a small group of the students selected to attend the USSYP," he said. "This entails navigating the social etiquette of Capitol Hill to ensuring the students are prepared for their days of briefings [or] activities to simply answering the students' questions regarding the military."
The USSYP began in 1962 with a Senate resolution "to increase young Americans' understanding of the interrelationships of the three branches of government, the caliber and responsibilities of federally elected and appointed officials, and the vital importance of democratic decision making not only for America but for people around the world."
While in the nation's capital, the delegates are expected to visit a variety of locations, including Mount Vernon, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, the U.S. Senate, Arlington National Cemetery and the White House.
Among the student participants -- 104 in all -- are two from each state, two from Washington, D.C., and two representing the Department of Defense Education Activity schools. While in the nation's capital, participants are expected to meet Senators, a justice of the Supreme Court and other senior leaders from the departments of State and Defense as well as other executive agencies.
Puntoriero said he also hopes that as a military officer, he will also be able to help student participants learn about the U.S. military at the same time they learn about the rest of the government.
"The military is more than occupations and wars," he said. "There are many pathways within military service. I had no idea I would join the military at their age -- I made that decision two months before graduating undergrad -- and I truly want to give them a holistic view about what their short-term future could hold."
For Navy Lt. Lauren Hickey, a fleet intelligence watch officer with the U.S. Sixth Fleet in Naples, Italy, this will be the second time she has served as a mentor for the USSYP, having served virtually last year. One takeaway from her experience as a mentor last year, she said, is her impression of the student participants.
"Not only are these the top students in the country, they are inquisitive, compassionate, respectful and supportive of each other, which are the qualities that are most admirable and will carry them through life," she said. "These students will go on to be leaders in their fields, whichever they choose."
Hickey said that for some of the students she worked with last year, it had been the first time they'd met a person in the military.
"Many students were surprised that the mentors didn't fit the 'typical mold' they expected of military members," she said. "I hope that the students learn that military members are as diverse as the nation we serve, and that even though we all wear a uniform, we are all unique individuals. I also hope they learn in this week of public service that the military provides many unique opportunities that many of them are interested in. Whether working overseas in embassies, flying a plane or serving as an attorney, the military has many education and career opportunities available."
First-time military mentor to the USSYP, Air Force Maj. Scott Hollister, who serves as the assistant director of operations within the United States Air Force Reserve at Schriever Space Force Base in Colorado, said he was immediately interested in volunteering.
"I have served in the Air Force for nearly 20 years and have quickly realized our greatest assets are our people," he said. "I have become passionate about growing those who care and are interested in creating a positive impact [on] the environment around them. USSYP gives me the opportunity to mentor the best assets of our nation's future -- I couldn't pass this up."
Hollister said it's apparent to him why the USSYP is important for not just the students who participate, but for the nation as well.
"In order for a member of any society to truly have an impact they must first have vested interest," he said. "This interest can come from many different avenues, but the most meaningful is to know one's history and the 'why' behind our decisions. I believe this program will further allow these young Americans to become more vested in the fabric of this country which can lead to more thoughtful and meaningful decisions in the future."
Hollister said, he also expects to gain something from his involvement.
"I know it will be a growing experience for me," he said. "I know I will learn a lot from these delegates, and I imagine I will walk away with confidence in the future leaders of our nation."
Coast Guard Cmdr. Robert Concepcion, chief of response with U.S. Coast Guard Sector Maryland-National Capital Region and Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anja Loomis, a reservist who serves with the Marine Corps' military manpower branch, are acting this year as the senior military mentor officer and assistant senior military mentor officer to the USSYP.
Both officers are experienced in the program. This is Concepcion's fourth year with the program and Loomis' third.
As the senior military mentor, Concepcion said he thinks the pool of military officers selected as mentors this year are ideal candidates for shepherding USSYP participants around the nation's capital.
"This amazing team of military mentors exemplifies the highest standards of decorum and protocol, facilitates inclusive and insightful debate and discussion among the students, and assists the USSYP staff with implementation of the program agenda," he said.
Concepcion said he hopes the USSYP, and the interaction with military mentors, will inspire participants to consider public service.
"We hope that we can instill within each student delegate, a more profound knowledge of all branches of our government, and why we need future leaders like them to look into opportunities in public service," he said.
He also said he hopes student delegates will witness the diversity in both military service and government, and that this will make them better future leaders as well.
"Some of our delegates may not have ever traveled outside of their state, may not have ever engaged with someone serving in the military, or anyone within a high-level position in our government," he said. "We hope that we can help them to gain a better understanding of diverse perspectives from other delegates and the high-level leaders they will engage with during Washington Week to help make them better leaders."
Both Loomis and Concepcion say the USSYP benefits the 104 delegates and the nation.
"I hope the youth participants will gain the wisdom to humbly use their unique talents to assume the highest responsibilities of compassionate public service," Loomis said. "And our nation benefits from having young Americans learn more about the government because it creates a broader pool for future civic leaders."
Concepcion said he thinks participation in the USSYP will give delegates a different perspective of government than what they might already have.
"I think our young Americans will learn that our government is not solely focused on division and conflict like they may often see or hear about from others," he said. "On a daily basis we have diverse people from different parties and parts of the country who are united by a dedication to serve our great nation."
When the delegates see that -- after meeting with leaders in Washington -- Concepcion said he believes participants will take that back home with them and into their own futures, where they can be better equipped to serve as leaders in the future.
"As a nation, young Americans learning more about how our government works will help our united nation make better decisions that affect our diverse population," he said. "The core principles of our American government are unifying, but they work better when people understand and apply them, so we have to get more youth involved in learning about how government works."