The 2012 Building a Grad Nation Summit: A Valuable Example for Youth Engagement

After only two years, America's Promise Alliance has set an example for highlighting youth involvement at the annual Building a Grad Nation Summit. This year over 120 youth were given the opportunity to have the eyes and ears of adults, including the likes of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and business executives such as AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson, in order to share their experiences in taking action to end the dropout crisis. About half of these remarkable youth were able to attend the Summit free of charge, as part of a scholarship program for which they applied for and were awarded after a challenging selection process. Young people were invited to an exclusive youth-only event before the Summit began, and some were invited to speak on several different panels. Young people also had the opportunity to network among both their peers and the national leaders that were present. It was truly inspiring to be able to showcase the impact that young people have on the work being done to end the dropout crisis, and this year’s presence of so many engaged youth was made possible in part by young leaders who took the reins long before the Summit convening began in March 2012. 

In November 2011, twelve young people who had been involved in the work of America’s Promise in varying capacities were selected to sit on the 2012 Building a Grad Nation Summit Youth Planning Committee (YPC). This committee was given the task of conceptualizing and carrying out the plan for youth involvement in the summit from the ground up. In January the YPC was joined by me, the Youth Engagement intern at America's Promise, and I played a coordinating role with communication and planning. Through bi-monthly conference calls and email exchanges, the YPC engaged in frequent contact over the following three and a half months, discussing the various ways that youth would be active in summit events, and eventually laying down the plans for the Youth Leaders Pre-Conference. Ideas and plans were shared on a Facebook group and on Google Docs between conference calls. The challenge of coordinating thirteen young people from three time zones and who are all actively involved in their respective communities provided an obstacle that all committee members worked hard to overcome, and did so to engage in thoughtful collaboration and planning.

In addition to organizing the Youth Leaders Pre-Conference, the YPC was also tasked with selecting youth scholarship recipients to attend the second annual Building a Grad Nation Summit. Committee members reviewed over 200 applications from youth in 45 states, and were able to select fifty outstanding youth attendees to receive funding to cover travel and accommodation expenses for their stay in Washington, D.C. The committee is proud to have selected a very diverse group of phenomenal young people who could actively engage in the Summit events.

The overarching goals for the Youth Leaders Pre-Conference were to encourage interaction among young leaders, and to prepare youth to be active participants in the regular Summit events. Just as America's Promise Alliance connects communities to the national movement to end the dropout crisis, the YPC designed a Youth Leaders Pre-Conference to connect young people from big and small towns, rural and urban locales, and East and West coasts in order to share ideas and discover common interests in their work to end the dropout crisis.

While young people were given the opportunity to connect with their peers at the youth only pre-conference, they were also expected to actively engage in general and breakout sessions along with all Summit participants. Youth attendees were present during opportunities to pose questions to speakers during the general sessions, and were received very well by both speakers and the audiences. It was apparent that the voices of young people were appreciated and considered valuable by all Summit participants. There was a palpable youth presence in the Target Networking Lounge, where they had the opportunity to connect with both their peers and the professionals who were present at the event. Youth were seen taking advantage of networking opportunities at various points throughout the Summit. The Summit provided a fantastic opportunity for young people to practice professional skills that will benefit them in the future.

The youth involvement that characterized the 2012 Building a Grad Nation Summit was highly visible, active, engaging, and inspiring to say the least. Adults and young people alike were inspired by the experience and accomplishments of many youth attendees, and left the Summit with a renewed motivation to encourage action to end the dropout crisis in communities across the country. It will be vital for this level of youth involvement to grow in future Building a Grad Nation Summits. With structure and adequate planning, there is no limit to the level of influence that young people can have on this event.