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Behind the Scenes


Amy Tran
Youth Leader

Profile produced by J. Greenberg


Amy Tran is a young woman ready to take on the challenges of the future -- and the present! At 16, she's already had a major impact on educational policy in the Central Valley.

As a student advisor to the E21 program, Amy helped design, distribute, and evaluate a survey of Sacramento's students. That survey helped secure an $8 million grant from the Carnegie Foundation --funds that are especially welcome in this time of deep cuts in education.

Amy came to the E21 program through her hard work in student government. As a Freshman, she served as class president. The next year, she was elected student body Treasurer. She's now a Junior, and says she's taking a break to concentrate on her studies...

But Amy's idea of a "break" isn't what you'd expect from a teenager. She's taking part in a youth leadership program offered by the Great Valley Center and the California Center for Civic Participation and Youth Development. The program, called CATAPULT, aims to cultivate and empower young leaders in the Central Valley.

And on January 10, 2003, Amy and 35 of her peers met at the state capitol, to present their positions on nine key issues facing the Central Valley. Amy spoke on the subject of civic engagement:

Amy Tran: From our research we discovered three important points:

1) Youth feel isolated from school and communities because they don't feel their opinions are valued.

2) Youth would like more opportunities to participate in policy making and other issues that affect us now and in the future.

3) Youth participation benefits everyone. It benefits youth by molding future leaders, and it encourages adults to view youth as a resource.

Over the course of this season, we've dealt with some tough issues. At times, the problems might have seemed overwhelming. But it's hard to be pessimistic knowing our future is in such capable hands.

What made you want to run for class president freshman year?

Well, during junior high I was kind of tired of how certain people made certain decisions for me. Instead of me actually getting a say in what we do and how our events are run. So I figured, "Freshman year is an opportunity to start fresh." It wouldn't necessarily be a popularity contest anymore; it would be more about who you think is able to do the best job. I just really wanted to do something. I was tired of just sitting there and letting people make decisions for me.

So what were some the things you did as class president?

We ran meetings, we worked in student government -- all the typical student government stuff: putting on dances, rallies, things like that. It's just basically learning how to work with others is the most important thing. You learn how to ask for donations, write thank you letters. I think they're important skills...

What other sorts of things did you learn as class president?

I learned that you can't always take things on yourself; you have to delegate things in order to be a good leader. If you take it all upon yourself it wouldn't be done to the best of its ability. I learned to delegate during my presidency freshman year. Another important thing I learned was how to communicate with others. You had to work a lot with people on committees because in a lot of school functions you have to ask for donations and things like that. You have to learn how to go about it the right way: write letters... There's a procedure to do everything.

Was it your involvement in student government that led to your participation in the E21 plan?

Yeah, I had to gotten to know our principal, Mr. Hyde, and he approached me one day about doing this thing called E21 as a youth director. I had no idea what it was at the time but I'm sure glad I did it.

Can you tell us in a nutshell exactly what the goal of E21 was?

E21 was an effort to redesign our curriculum, facilities --everything we need in order to be more successful in our learning environment.

And a key element of that effort was securing a Carnegie grant?

Yes, definitely -- the Carnegie grant was a major focus of the program.

Who did you personally wind up working with once you got into the program?

I wound up working with 35 other youths from our district from all the different schools, even the continuation schools. I wound up working for the people from Capital Focus, which were Jim Davis and Dana Gonzalez. They were very important in guiding us and helping us because they trained us to do what we do, to speak effectively with adults, how to communicate with adults.

You said previously that you had a passion for policy; is that something that grew out of doing the E21 effort or is that something you've always had?

Well, I've always wanted to have my say, to have my voice heard somehow. Not necessarily have my way but I wanted my voice to be heard. I didn't know there was a way to do it effectively without it sounding like you're complaining. And this showed me there is an effective way to do it. It's by speaking in a way that's very respectable; you can't turn down someone with great language -- the jargon that they use -- making valuable points.

Can you give us a brief overview of the survey you put together: who you approached and what kind of questions you asked them?

Well, basically we were handed surveyes due to the size of the campus. We distributed them to a cross-section of youth. The questions on there were like, "What's the best thing about your school? What are the worst things? What things about school do you find most stressful? What do you like? What don't you like?" Things like that. "What would like to see in the future?" It asked them if they would like to be involved in the forum and things like that.

So what were some of the responses you got? What were kids most concerned about?

One of the things was smaller learning communities. A lot of kids, especially those at the bigger schools, said that their classes were overcrowded -- 40 to a class. That's ridiculous. They feel that they don't get the help they need or the attention that they want in order to be successful. And they feel like they don't have access to counselors; they're too stressed out. Five different projects all due on the same day -- that's hard. Nobody has the time to do that; even with time management there aren't enough hours in the day to complete all those projects. The overpowering thing we learned was smaller learning communities. Students want to be successful. We don't want to go to school for no reason, and we know in order to be successful we have to have the attention and help we need.

Can you give us any examples of how the money from Carnegie can help alleviate these problems?

Maybe they can go to facilitating smaller houses; smaller learning communities. They could be there for support services, hiring an extra counselor if that's possible. I know some of it has gone to hiring entrepreneurs who are at each campus to make sure that the E21 program is being carried out.

How exactly do they do that?

They're overseers; we have E21 meetings twice a month and they're the ones that facilitate it. They make sure that things run smoothly for youth congress, teachers, being aware of what's going on, things like that.

Are you still involved with E21? How long was it as a process for you?

After the youth director program was over, I was involved with SSE, which I was also involved with when I was with youth directors. The student advisory council decided to carry out the goals of E21 basically. They were always kind of a quiet group. They met every once in awhile and talked about what went on in the school but they never had a mission. But now they want to carry out the mission of youth governmence. I'm still kind of involved with that but this year I've kind of taken my hand out of very one's little pot, and try to lay back and focus more on my academics now, because it is my junior year. It's a very important year.

So what some of the academics that you're focusing on this year?

Honors and AP classes. Chemistry...all the normal classes. I have problems just like everyone else, areas that I need help on. I'm really trying to focus on that. One class that I really like is AP U.S. History because it challenges you in ways of thinking, you have analyze everything. It's so great.

From your perspective, what are some of the really grave problems in education that need to be addressed now?

Well, an overall view of our district is that everyone isn't getting enough attention, that overcrowding in classes is something that we should really focus on. That overcrowding in schools, especially in the bigger schools with like 2,700 kids, 40 to a classroom is just -- you can't do that. You can't learn in that environment. Facilities are really important. It might sound a little bit superficial or what not, but you can't learn in a classroom that's 100 degrees, or below freezing. You can't focus when all your thinking is on how it's so uncomfortable. I feel we need to focus on the big dropout rate between freshman and sophomore year. What are our non-high school graduates going to do to be effective citizens in the future? Smaller learning communities would help solve that; you wouldn't be wondering what went wrong over those two years if you're close knit as a group and the teachers pay attention to you, then they would know.

Where are you hoping to go to school and what are you hoping to do after graduation?

After high school I want to go to UC Berkely. If not then I'd like to go to UCLA or UC Davis, or something like that. After that, hopefully law school --I don't know which law school -- and then become a corporate lawyer. If I decide to do something later on...I don't know what college will bring to me. I'm sure it will open new doors to me.

What is it about corporate law that you find attractive?

It's just something about business and how it's run, because we do live in a capitalistic nation and it's just like everyone out for their own and if you're successful...then you're successful. When money comes into play people get kind of shaky, and I'd like to see it regulated more because we are learning a lot in economics right now that I find really interesting about big corporations.

How did you get involved in the CATAPULT program?

Well, student advisory council is all about youth government now and speaking the youth voice, so we were promoting different programs we could get involved in and I came across the CATAPULT program and I thought, "Wow! That's a great opportunity to work with students from throughout California." So I applied, got my recommendation letters, and I got a letter that said I was accepted.

What are CATAPULT's goals?

CATAPULT is a program that focuses mainly on the Central Valley and about empowering youth and creating a better community for us because we are going to make policy recommendations to legislators and we are going to have a major project at the end of the community in one area or another, whether it be civic participation or health services things like that.

How did you wind up taking on civic engagement as a subject?

During our youth training session in August, we signed up for different committees to research and to make recommendations in January -- which is now! On Monday we're going to make policy recommendations to legislators. When we signed up for those fields we were just divided into three other subdivisions to focus on and they put me into civic engagement. I've participated in civic engagement before.

Do you see a lot of apathy among your fellow students?

Its not that I see complete apathy; its just that they aren't aware of what they can do. They can do a lot just by speaking up. They just have to find the right avenue to go down to have their voice be heard. A lot of them don't know about E21 and what they can do to be heard. What really frustrates me is the fact that they want to complain but they won't take the initiative to find out what they can do.

What was it like for you meeting other students from around the Valley and working with them?

It was really shocking to me because they really opened a new way of thinking about how our valley really is. I live in Sacramento which is basically a city. But they lived in more rural areas that had problems. They had nothing to do on Saturday nights, so a lot of them turned to drugs or violence. That opened a whole new door to me; I didn't even know something like that would exist. I'm thinking, "This isn't the Midwest." It showed me the rural way of living. Not everything's like Sacramento, in that people would like to live in Sacramento and be a part of a big city.

Do you think you made some friendships and allegiances that will last?

I definitely hope so because those people are really enthusiastic, and we have the same interests obviously because we're joining this program; we're willing to make a commitment. And I mean, there's not a lot of youth I know around me that are really into this stuff. They don't really get what I'm doing. They're just like, "Oh, okay, you're doing community service." I mean, it's a little bit more than that if you look at it in a broader picture. I'd like to see it more as starting something that future generations can carry on.

Did you find any common ground with the other young people involved in CATAPULT?

I would say that the common ground would just be like, you know, no matter where you are, kids are going to be bored and they're going to turn to something else because they get tired of the same thing they see every day. So we want to find ways where youth can direct their energies in a positive way, instead of going out and doing drugs. I guess that's our major common ground.

What advice do you have for young people who want to get involved but don't know where to start?

Well, I'm sure there's an adult they can turn to that is interested in what they have to say. You can go to organizations or maybe like even your city council and board meetings. Just start going to board meetings and suggesting that maybe they have a youth council started. Or go to the school board; if you don't already have a student member on the school board then approach them and ask them if it would be possible to open up positions or anything like that.

So you've found that adults really are receptive when youth approach them with ideas?

Yes, I do believe that they are receptive, but it's only if you go about it in the right way. It's when you speak in a courteous manner. When you speak not using 'like' and all the teenage jargon. "Um," and likes, and uhs, and you knows! Just speak the way your teacher would like you to speak during a presentation because that's basically what you're doing. You're presenting an idea to them.

Do you think you'll stay in the Central Valley after getting your law degree and starting your career?

Hmm…I honestly don't know. Because, it's a great place to be because it's like Sacramento is "the little big city," you know? And it's just the right place to be because the cost of living is low, the weather is nice, everything is just…it's nice here. But maybe I want to go to a place where things are more "happening" like San Francisco where everything's so busy. I like staying busy so…

What impact do you see your generation making in the long run?

Well, I think that hopefully adults will turn to kids or teenagers more as a resource than "a problem to solve." Because honestly, we are a resource; people pay a lot of money to hear what we have to say. Advertising companies pay millions and millions of dollars to hear, "What's the coolest thing?" Well, we're offering it right here for free! We're giving it to you for free, and if you were smart you'd take us up on it. (laughs)

And how about for the future of the schools here in Sacramento and the Valley; what are your hopes and predictions?

Hopefully we'll provide students with a more successful graduation rate, better curriculum, allow them to be more competitive for schools, or colleges. If not -- and for those who don't choose to go to colleges, hopefully we'll provide them with a sense of what they do want to do after school. I think the whole goal of high school is to prepare them for the real world. But are you really able to do that when you're focused more on algebra or calculus where you have to do things on imaginary planes? Or do you do that by going out to the world and actually seeing a piece of it?



The complete text of New Valley Episode 110 -- Movers & Shakers...


Presentation also made possible by a grant from
the Great Valley Center


New Valley Official Site