As a high school freshman, I dreamed of being the most popular and talked about girl on campus. My goal was to become the center of everyone's attention. I had no way to know that these dreams would become my worst nightmare.
By my sophomore year, almost every student knew my name, I was constantly being talked about and I most definitely was the center of attention -- but it wasn't everything I wanted, not at all.
Other students knew my name because it was whispered beneath their breath in class. And I became the center of attention because I was considered "the girl who cried rape."
Girls thought I was promiscuous and boys assumed I was into providing them sexual favors. I was instantly judged based on what was heard about me, rather than what actually happened to me. Girls would shout horrible names at me during passing periods; and people who were supposed to be my friends chose not to be because they thought I was too much drama. It wasn't too long before I became a victim of bullying.
But I was not the girl who cried rape. I was not the girl who partook in promiscuous activities. I was a girl who had been sexually assaulted and emotionally overwhelmed by the negativity that surrounded me. I felt worthless, lonely, and hated, and increasingly uncomfortable at school. I wanted to disconnect myself from not only the social world, but the education world.
That was then. In the years since, I have grown tremendously. I became involved with a Career Technical Student Organization (CTSO) known as HOSA: Future Health Professionals. HOSA was the lifeline that helped reconnect me to education.
I soon became inspired by the idea of exemplary leadership; and I chose to run for a state leadership position as a California HOSA State Officer. I was successfully elected and appointed California HOSA's State President. This leadership opportunity allowed me to rebuild my self-esteem and come to an understanding that education is important. It also opened my eyes to the fact that -- regardless of what people think or say about me -- I know that I am doing big things that will lead to a successful future. That is one thing that cannot be reflected upon in a negative manner. I am currently serving HOSA at the national level as a national officer.
As a freshman in college, I have discovered that not only is leadership my passion, but so is education.
For this reason, I chose to become involved with the Youth Leadership Institute (YLI) as a National Youth Ambassador, so that I could be involved with developing ideas that have the potential to connect youth to education. I was stunned when I discovered that 25 percent of American teenagers do not finish high school. Thirty percent of American teenagers who do finish high school do not move on to college; and 40 percent of those who do move on to college do not graduate within six years.
YLI works in support of the White House Council for Community Solutions to develop mechanisms that have the potential to lower these statistics. YLI is currently promoting the Spark Opportunity Challenge, where young people can share their solutions to help get youth connected to employment and educational opportunities.
More than six million young people in this country are "Opportunity Youth," meaning they are disconnected from education and employment, but have so much potential. Isolation and lack of support are at the heart of this problem. In order to lower these statistics, our nation must work together to prevent the root issues that are causing students to become disconnected from the pathways of success provided by education and employment.
We must end bullying so that students will be safe in the school environment. We must help students discover organizations and programs where they can not only express themselves, but be surrounded by students who have the same passion and aspirations. And we must find a way to resolve the liability issues that prevent students under the age of 18 from volunteering in work places such as hospitals.
Most importantly, we should assure ourselves that we are always positively impacting youth, instilling them with confidence and making them aware that dreams are infinite and success is everlasting when they take advantage of the educational opportunities that are offered.
Think of it this way: The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. More opportunities -- in education, in employment, or in efforts like the SparkOpportunity Challenge that elevate our voices and solutions -- will equal a better America in the future.
Brittany Woods is a student at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. She currently serves as a National Youth Ambassador with the Youth Leadership Institute and on HOSA's National Executive Council.