They're young, they're full of ideas and they're vowing to make a positive, long-lasting difference in their community and the world.
University of Arkansas at Fort Smith students Kayley Corley, Alex Ellis, Taylor Weavers, AnnMarie McCollum and Andrew Pearcy and Ozark High School senior Jessica Turner have touched upon national and international matters during their recent participation in programs that promote awareness and community involvement.
Participating in the national "Up to Us" competition for the third consecutive year, the UAFS students recently met with U.S. Rep. Steve Womack to discuss the national debt and its effects on the country's present and future, while Turner recently was invited to present her research on food-security issues at the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute in Des Moines, Iowa.
"The students were very anxious and prepared for Congressman Womack's visit," said Dr. Elizabeth Underwood, UAFS associate vice chancellor of government and university relations. "Congressman Womack carved out two hours with the students, and he went over how, from his viewpoint as a congressman, you solve the national debt."
"Up to Us" is a national collegiate competition designed to raise awareness about the national debt and promote student/legislator conversations about the debt and how it can possibly be reduced, said Corley, a 21-year-old senior majoring in political science at UAFS. When Womack and his political team heard that UAFS was participating in the competition, he asked to have a meeting with the UAFS students, which was a request that almost shocked the students, she said.
"This program brings awareness about the national debt over the course of four weeks in November and early December," said Corley, who is from Booneville. "We kicked off the event with the My Two Cents Day.
"This was a watch party for one of the U.S. presidential debates," she added. "It was great to have students come out for that."
Ellis, a 19-year-old sophomore at UAFS, agreed.
"The debate was on a Thursday night, and over 40 students showed up with our team to watch," said Ellis, who originally is from Gentry and plans to obtain a double major in accounting and finance. "Our campus is a little over or a little under 7,000 students, and less than 2,000 live on campus, so to have 40 students show up at 8 p.m. on a Thursday, it was really encouraging."
Ellis was equally impressed with his group's conversations with Womack, which took place at the UAFS Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center. Womack listened to the students' comments and questions, and his own comments, according to Ellis, weren't spoken in vain.
"I was blown away by how intelligent and passionate Mr. Womack is about the national debt," he said. "I knew it was a big issue that was important, but I didn't realize how big of an issue it was until we talked with Mr. Womack.
"Frankly, it's embarrassing to me that our country's national debt is at about $19 trillion," Ellis added. "I am going to school to be an accountant, so balancing a budget is what I do. Meeting with Mr. Womack and this program give me hope that at least some legislation is being passed at the state level to counteract with the debt."
Womack told the students how difficult it is for legislators to vote for cutting budgets, particularly the budgets of defense and medical needs, he said.
"Mr. Womack made us think through the discussion," Ellis said. "He said you morally can't just cut spending. If you cut 12 percent of funding for technology for the soldiers who are fighting overseas, or if you cut a person's Social Security funds, that's not good."
For Turner, presenting her six-page research paper in front of some of the leading minds in the areas of global agriculture, food and development was a similar eye-opening experience. Among those present for the three-day event were Akinwumi A. Adesina, president of the African Development Bank Group; Dr. Joyce Banda, former president of the Republic of Malawi and founder of the Joyce Banda Foundation; U.S. secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack; and journalist-author Roger Thurow ("The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children — And the World").
"I was excited, nervous, all of the above," said the 17-year-old Turner, whose participation was approved by a panel of university professionals at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "My paper, 'Feeding Innovation, Fighting Hunger,' was over empowering women and feeding the country of Niger in Africa. If you educate and empower women, the economy and food will increase."
Turner spent about 20 hours researching her paper. During the symposium, she and the other 200 participants were split into groups for round-table discussions with well-known panelists.
"One of my panelists was Dr. Norman Borlaug's granddaughter, Jeanie, and once we figured out who Jeanie was, we were like, 'Wow,'" said Turner, who plans to attend Arkansas Tech University. "Dr. Borlaug is a Noble Peace Prize laureate who founded the World Food Prize."
All of the participating panelists offered "good insight" into the food insecurities many people currently face, she said.
"We also were in a big room and packaged up to 25,000 meals in 20 minutes for Outreach Inc., a hunger-fighting organization that serves people in the United States and internationally," Turner said. "It was very inspiring."
Underwood said the UAFS students will learn which university wins the "Up to Us" competition in the coming months. The competition includes a point system based on student participation, presentation and the number of student signatures that are placed on an online pledge to recognize the seriousness of the national-debt issue, she said.
Each of the Top 10 schools in the competition will be allowed to send one team member to the Clinton Global Institute Conference, which will be held in the spring, Underwood said. All of the members of the competition's top team will be able to attend the upcoming conference, she said.
"We've had Top 10 teams during the first two years we participated in the competition, and last year, Kayley was on the team and she had the opportunity to hear Bill Clinton speak," Underwood said. "She wasn't able to meet President Clinton, but she was able to be there in the same room."
Corley said she has enjoyed being a part of the UAFS team.
"Right now, we are running a $500 billion deficit, and we're able to borrow and fund, but there will come a day when we have to make a big decision," she said. "That decision (will ask), 'Are we going to fund national defense, retirement, education, bridges?'
"Will we have to make those decisions tomorrow? Probably not. But if we don't start working on this tomorrow, those decisions will be very difficult to make 50 years from now," Corley added. "It's not our grandparents' generation or our parents' generation that must address this. It's going to be our generation."
Corley added that students shouldn't be afraid of asking "tough questions" and seeking advice from political leaders at the city, state and national level.
"It's very easy for students to just think about theory and what they've learned in the classroom, but being involved in something like this has allowed me to interact with people — to put the theory into practice," she said. "This has made it more meaningful to me, and I think every student could benefit from a program such as this."
Turner also thinks these types of programs are crucial to students, leaders and community members.
"It was very eye-opening for me," she said. "I think every student could benefit from that kind of experience."