The number one word participants use to describe their Girls State experience is “life-changing.” The purpose of the program is to deepen girls’ understanding of citizenship and how our government works. But what transpires during the week is so powerful it’s often hard to describe.
“I can easily say that I gained 41 new best friends, greater knowledge, and a fervent capacity of respect for people around me,” says Meg Priest ’20. “Girls State was uncomfortable, but it was one of the most rewarding opportunities I have ever experienced.”
On the opening day of Volunteer Girls State (VGS), girls move to a new city and get a new address in the mythical state of Volunteer. In a city of strangers, they must work together to elect their mayor and city council, moving on to county officials and eventually a governor.
“A lot of participants say that they’re not very political and I just giggle a little,” says Jenise Gordon, GPS Head of Upper School, who has volunteered at VGS for 30 years. “We’re all political—or at least we better be. We all need to make sure our elected officials are held accountable by us, their constituency, and make wise choices for the future of our city, state, and country.”
There are platform speeches and parties, team building experiences such as the “Fast Song” performance and VGS Olympics, and powerful speakers such as Freedom Rider Patricia Jenkins-Armstrong. The Tennessee Governor always attends, and when Senator Lamar Alexander can attend, he has been known to play the Tennessee Waltz at the inauguration of the VGS Governor.
Girls who want to hold office must campaign and give speeches, but there are no assigned platforms. Each candidate can decide how she feels on current issues such as gun control, higher education, abortion, gay rights, and more. They are given ample opportunities to debate issues and model what it’s like to be part of the political process.
In addition to learning the brass tacks of how our government operates, girls explore questions such as, How do you find your voice and how do you share it? How do you become someone who weaves the fabric of our society rather than rips it? What are appropriate ways for civil discourse? And, finally, how can their future look different if they engage in politics rather than become jaded?
“A lot of girls go and find their people—a group of young women keenly interested in making the world a better place and willing to work together to achieve that goal,” Gordon says. “Many walk away recognizing that if they can do this in a week with a group of strangers, they can do anything. They often take this feeling back to their hometowns and look for ways to make a difference.”
One of the most profound aspects of the experience is the support each girl feels. For many it’s the first time they’ve been in a space of young women supporting other women. Gordon says Girls State was the first place she learned to hug people, noting an “affection that’s rampant.” Since attending as a delegate at age 17, she has never missed a year as a volunteer counselor/staff member.
Of course, that level of support is nothing new to GPS students, which might be why they generally perform well at the event. When they invited on stage to honor any past Governors who were there as counselors, three of the seven women were GPS alumnae. When former Girls Nation senators were called to the stage to be recognized, four of the nine were GPS students.
“Going to GPS every day since sixth grade has become so normal for me that I have a slight tendency to forget that women don't always lift each other up like we are taught to do in our classes,” says Sarah Foropolous ’20. “It made me extremely grateful for my education and the community supporting me.”
Without that support, Sana Nisar ’20 might not have even made it to the event. During the majority of the 75-minute group interview, Nisar sat silent at the end of the table. Her friend Mary Beth Propes ’20 was talking about a particular issue and said, “I want to know what you think, Sana.”
“Sana’s response was so thoughtful and insightful, you could tell she had been intently taking it all in, but if she had not spoken up, she likely would not have been selected,” says Gordon, who conducted the interview. “Mary Beth opened the door for her to walk through. It was incredibly thoughtful and such a great example of women building other women up.”
Nisar went on to be nominated for the VGS Supreme Court as well as one of only 13 nominated to represent Tennessee at Girls Nation. While she didn’t procure either position, she says the experience has inspired her to become a “future builder.”
“I don’t think I realized that I had the qualities to be a leader until my nomination,” Sana says. “I had not even considered myself as a good candidate, but knowing that VGS believed I could have really made me rethink my perception of myself. I feel really inspired to promote change and be a leader now.”
Stories like this are what keep Gordon coming back to support the program. For 20 years she served as a junior counselor, senior counselor, then Lead Senior Counselor before moving to the staff and serving as the Citizenship Director. She’s not alone in her dedication; every counselor at the event came through as a VGS delegate.
“A friend just celebrated 53 years of volunteering,” she says. “It’s the kind of organization you come to and stay for a long time because it changed your life in a way that’s sometimes hard to express. As a result we continue to be drawn back together to give other young women the same opportunity.”
One of Gordon’s favorite aspects of VGS is the freedom it provides girls to reinvent themselves. Before the event, girls are asked what is one thing they want to leave behind when they get to Girls State. For some it’s their shyness. Others say their boisterousness or the opinions of their parents. Whatever their answers, VGS provides a tremendous amount of freedom since no one in your ‘city’ is from your hometown or knows anything about you.
“I was able to be exactly who I wanted to be and share exactly what I thought,” says Mary Beth. “I wasn’t tied down by who I was anywhere else. Everyone was so supportive and open to hearing different viewpoints.”
That openness and support may also give participants the freedom to one day reimagine what politics means in this country.