For 15-year-old Uma Menon of Winter Park, Florida, a suburb of Florida, it was a dream come true, considering her avid interest in politics.
On Feb. 5, Menon, a 11th grader at the Winter Park High School, was the guest of her Congresswoman, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D.-Fla.), to the State of the Union address of President Donald Trump in the House Chamber.
But it didn’t come easy—she was afforded this opportunity only after she convincingly won a State of the Union essay contest organized by Murphy’s office.
Launched in January, the contest provided high school students from Florida’s Seventh Congressional District, which Murphy represents, with the opportunity to attend the SOTU address by submitting a 500-word essay on the importance of youth civic engagement.
Murphy, who was recently elected chair of Future Forum--an influential group of young House Democrats who advocate for issues and opportunities important to younger Americans—according to her office was “using this historic occasion to elevate the voices of young people in her district.”
Menon’s essay, which was reviewed by a group of local educators, focused on the historical importance of youth-led movements, including in the current political debate.
On Jan. 30th, after Menon was adjudged the winner, Murphy said in a statement that “Uma’s essay showed a deep understanding of the impact young voices like hers can have in our political discourse.”
“As she joins me next week to be a part of this annual ceremony, I hope she has the chance to share with other leaders her generation’s vision for building a better and more prosperous future,” the lawmaker said, and added, “As Chair of Future Forum, I will keep working to elevate and empower young people in my district and across the country who are making a difference.”
In an interview with India Abroad after she returned home to Winter Park, Menon said she was thrilled to have had “this opportunity travel to Washington and be part of this historic tradition,” and was full of appreciation to Murphy for “giving me the chance to come to our nation’s capital to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Explaining the genesis of the opportunity, which she immediately seized, she said, “I was extremely excited when I heard about this opportunity, as I have a deep interest in politics, and particularly, youth civic engagement.”
“I have long been a supporter and admirer of Congresswoman Murphy, and I was notified that I had won the contest shortly after the new date for the State of the Union was announced by the Congresswoman herself.”
Menon said, “The historic opportunity to attend the State of the Union was one of the greatest experiences of my life—to attend one of the most important events that occurs in the United States each year. Being in a room with some of the most influential leaders in America was something that I have only dreamed of.”
She acknowledged that this was her first major political event although she noted that “as I believe in the importance of youth civic engagement, I have previously been involved in small-scale political events in the past, such as campaigning and activism. However, I have never attended a political event as large and as important as the State of the Union.”
Asked how she would describe Trump’s address, and if she found his remarks unifying or divisive, Menon said, “I was very happy to hear the president's calls for bipartisanship, considering that he has often been unwilling to compromise and work towards finding common ground during his presidency.”
“I would like to see President Trump adhere to the themes of bipartisanship that he expressed in his speech by working with Democrats across party lines to solve the challenges in front of us,” she said. “But I felt that his discussion on immigration was divisive in the wake of a plausible second government shutdown in 2019 and his dehumanization of immigrants is extremely problematic.”
Menon said, “I hope to see more consistency between the president’s actions and words of unity. I was also happy to see that the president honored many distinguished guests who have served our country in his speech.”
Asked about her interest in politics, she acknowledged, “I truly believe that politics, in a unifying way, provides a path to build solutions to societal issues. For this reason, I am very interested in politics and hope to run for office in the future in order to serve the country.”
“I have been involved with activism and political movements, such as gun control, net neutrality, and equality for marginalized groups--gender, racial, and other minorities,” Menon said.
Currently, in terms of leadership activities, she explained, “I am a student senator for my school's IB program (International Baccalaureate), an advisor for College Board's youth council, and a regional president for Future Business Leaders of America.”
Menon also said that she was the vice president of her high school’s Speech & Debate Team “and am nationally-ranked in Lincoln-Douglas Debate.”
She said debating “has provided me with an avenue for advocacy,” and added that she also enjoys writing and “my editorials and poetry have been published by various national magazines.”
Menon, who is a junior in high school, is also an AP (Advanced Placement) Scholar with distinction and as a nationally-ranked debater in the Lincoln-Douglas Debate, received a Special Distinction from the National Speech and Debate Honor Society.
She was also recently named the winner of National Poetry Quarterly’s High School Contest and her first poetry chapbook was published in 2019 by Zoetic Press.
Menon’s parents, Ramkumar Kozhikote Menon and Shailaja Alath Menon, an engineer and entrepreneur respectively, hail from the Thrissur region in Kerala.
Menon’s winning essay:
Some mornings, I throw a political t-shirt over my head before I walk out of the house. An equality shirt when I'm feeling powerless, a reform shirt when I want change, or maybe a candidate’s shirt on election day. These small acts make me feel powerful regardless of my age and allow me to express my beliefs to make a change. Those mornings, I leave the house with pride and without fear of reprimand, thanks to student activists who came fifty years before me. After all, it is because of the young students who led the Free Speech movement and unabashedly wore black protest bands that I am able to wear political t-shirts, express my beliefs, and assemble with other students at school today. Over the years, civic-minded youth activists have created formidable change, whether it was through the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Case, or through the more recent Never Again MSD (Marjory Stoneman Douglas) movement. Youth civic engagement is extremely important because young Americans represent the future of America. A few decades from now, one of us will be delivering the State of the Union. It is the voice of the youth that America listens to today, and is the voice of the youth that America must listen to tomorrow. History has shown that youth-powered civic movements are often the most effective; prominent organizations such as United We Dream and Black Lives Matter were founded by young Americans. Many important policies on labor, segregation, civil rights, and immigration have also been passed as a result of youth engagement. The youth-led gun control movement, sparked by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, created unprecedented change: over fifty laws were passed across the nation within six months of the shooting. This fervor and dedication of young Americans is unmatched, making civic engagement all the more powerful. Youth bring a fresh voice and energy to discourse that allows for greater problem-solving. Studies indicate that civic engagement is extremely beneficial both for youth and their communities. Civic engagement influences student’s future success, reduces disparities, and improves their health. It creates well-connected communities and a more democratic society. Volunteering, protesting, and voting are all part of civic engagement and allow young Americans from all walks of life to participate in their communities. A healthy democracy requires participation of its citizens, especially young Americans who must be prepared to engage, contribute, and lead the nation. For young Americans, civic engagement brings greater appreciation of the community and understanding of the various challenges that the community faces. Civic engagement has the potential to leave long-lasting impressions on young Americans, making them stronger leaders who are more likely to contribute to their communities in the future. It is the children of America who will be living through the political and community decisions that are made in the present, whether it be environmental, domestic, or international policy. Without civic engagement, American democracy will cease to flourish.