CHESTER, Vt. – For almost 40 years, the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont has offered immersive experiences to high school students, allowing them to delve into their unique area of interest alongside passionate peers and professionals. This summer GIV has been striving to create memorable experiences with Vermont high schoolers after a year of isolation and disconnection. July 30 was the official closing of the 2021 season, leaving Vermont with more than 300 GIV alumni from the 2021 cohort. Among these alumni is Marlayna King, a rising junior at Green Mountain Union High School in Chester.
“I didn’t know I wanted to do it at first because I [thought], oh, maybe it’s not for me,” said Marlayna.
Marlayna is not alone in this sentiment. Throughout my time serving as the AmeriCorps member for the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont, I have had discussions with youth councils and community partners alike who share stories of young folks feeling that an enrichment program like GIV simply “isn’t for them.” This is the case for a myriad of possible reasons, from feeling that they don’t belong, to feeling that they haven’t yet discovered a passion that would lead them to dive so deeply into one of the immersive topics. For Marlayna, it was the latter. Luckily, an adult in her life inspired her to give the Global Issues and Youth Action Immersion a try.
Global Issues and Youth Action was one of eight Immersions offered through GIV this summer. Directed by John Ungerleider, this program focused on empowering youth to trust the strength of their voice in a global context. Students had the chance to meet activist groups working directly on global issues, draft legislative bills, and discuss the complex problems of our time during intentional dialogue practices.
“My mom was like ‘You should really do this. Even if it’s not your thing then you know it’s not your thing. But if it is your thing then you’ll know that too!” This was enough to motivate Marlayna to apply.
“And I’m really glad I did,” she added.
It clicked for her during the “Making Laws and Making Change” class, taught by Michelle Bos-Lun, activist and politician sitting as a state representative in the Windham-4 district of Vermont.
“Working with Michelle … that was so inspiring,” Marlayna explained. “She’s in the Statehouse doing this work but she’s also right here, talking to me, to us.” As Marlayna shared this, her eyes literally sparkled through the Zoom screen. “It made me feel so,” she paused in what seemed like an attempt to find a word profound enough for the experience, “…inspired! But also, it’s realistic. Anyone can do this if they really try hard enough.”
One of the biggest impressions that Marlayna reflected upon was the network of other engaged students with whom she got to connect. She worked closely with Ava White, Elias Poling, Minelle Sarfo-adu, and Addie Lentzner throughout the immersion. “They left a huge impression on me,” Marlayna shared, “because they were so amazing and the work that they were doing was so inspiring.”
If you plot these students’ hometowns on a map, you will see a scalene triangle that spans from south to north and east to west, a web of relationships that traverses the state. “I definitely feel like I could reach out to them and they’d be helpful,” Marlayna shared. “And that’s a really great feeling.”
Throughout the Immersion, Marlayna’s group worked together to draft a bill that would require every public and private school in Vermont to incorporate curriculum on Critical Race Theory at the middle and high school level. During the one-day program, which brought GIYA alumni to the Statehouse in Montpelier, Michelle Bos-Lun and her son Aaron, the executive director of Miami-Dade Trial Lawyers Association, led the students through a simulation of the legislative process. Marlayna rose from her seat in the Representatives Hall, cleared her throat, and read the bill to a room full of her engaged peers. A few clarifying questions and comments later, and the bill received a unanimous vote.
As we came to the end of our conversation, I asked Marlayna if she had one final sentiment to share. “There are so many other people that are feeling the same way that you do, that you don’t know,” she assured. “You might think there’s not, but there one hundred percent is. So don’t ever feel like you’re alone. Because you’re not. This [Immersion] made me realize that especially.”
Written by Maia Gilmour, VYDC AmeriCorps Member