Weber hosts Girls State for the first time

(Photo by Christina Reekie) Girl State participants walking to their graduation Saturday at Weber State University.

More than 300 high school girls from all over the state of Utah created and ran a mock state election at WSU  last week. Girls State, an annual event sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary, brings girls between their junior and senior years of high school, teaches them about the political process and has them run for offices during the week.

The American Legion Auxiliary is the largest women’s patriotic service organization in the United States. Representatives from the group go to high schools around the state and interview potential participants and then select girls to attend.

“If nothing else comes out of it, what we want them to learn is they don’t have to vote like their friends. They don’t have to vote like their parents. They can discuss these issues, they can learn to disagree. They have their own voice,” said Cary Fisher, the education director of Girls State.

The girls are divided into cites named after former Utah governors. In these cities they run for city, county and even state offices to give them a taste of what the political process is like.

The girls also attend classes on government and public speaking and listen to speakers from the political world.

Utah Gov. Gary Hebert, Congressmen Rod Bishop and Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell were among this year’s speakers. Caldwell told the girls he hoped that one day one of the girls would fill his seat as Ogden mayor. He noted that in 160 years of Ogden history, Ogden has never had a female mayor. Utah also has never elected a female to the United States Senate.

“Our first and foremost goal is to educate them and what they chose to do with it is up to them, but these girls are the caliber that could do any of that,” said  Merilee Wilson, the director of Girls State.

Kelsey Jardine from Alpine, Utah said that the week taught her to play to her strengths and to not be afraid to share them with people.

“Rather than being self-conscious and being worried about that people going to think you’re bragging you just got to be like ‘I’m great so vote for me,’ ” Jardine said.

Fisher said that she had already seen girls become more involved in politics after attending Girls State. She said they’ve come back and said they went to their caucus meeting or got involved in the delegate process.

Fisher said that last year attendees were instrumental in helping to craft a child sexual abuse bill that was passed during this year’s state legislative session.

Girls State has been hosted on college campuses across the nation since 1937. Weber State hosted it for the first time this year.

“Weber State’s accommodations, their staff and their pricing fit our needs,” said Wilson.

Fisher said that Chad Moser at the Union Building and Carol McNamara of the Olene Walker Institute bent over backwards for them.

“They have connections that we didn’t ever have,” Fisher said.

WSU President Charles Wight said that he was pleased to have Girls State and hoped that this was the beginning of a long relationship with them.

“Weber State is in a position of serving a community that goes beyond the counties of Weber, Davis and Morgan. This is one of the ways that we can reach out to young people while they’re still in high school and offer them a first-rate education in civic engagement,” he said.