As a first-time voter, I've been paying particularly close attention to the election this year. There's been a lot of talk about topics like the economy, the national debt, our dependence on foreign oil or our engagements in Iran, Libya and Syria. All important subjects, for sure, but no one is talking about the single most important issue that will determine America's future -- the fate of its young people.
To be fair, I was thrilled that the first question at the town hall debate was from college student Jeremy Epstein, who represented young people well when he asked President Obama and Governor Romney about his post-graduation job prospects.
But I'm disappointed that one question equaled the sum total of concerns about young people this election season. And that's a mistake, because America's youth are in a state of crisis. More than 16 million children live in poverty, three in 10 are overweight or obese, and more than a quarter of eligible high school students don't graduate each year. Among developed nations, America's young people rank 14th in reading proficiency, 17th in science and 25th in math.
These are the issues I think about, and I will be proud to cast my very first ballot on Nov. 6. But there are millions of young people who won't be old enough to vote and, therefore, won't have a voice, yet whose futures will chart the future of our nation. As Boys & Girls Clubs of America's National Youth of the Year, I consider it my duty to represent them. Like many of them, I have experienced the fear of domestic and community violence; of not knowing where my next meal would come from; of not knowing how to transition to a promising future after high school. So, I will vote on their behalf.
I will also join with other youth leaders -- in the Boys & Girls Club network and beyond -- to ensure that the voices of young people are heard on issues like:
· Providing adequate resources to radically increase high school graduation rates, particularly among minority students;
· Bolstering access to more affordable education and 21st century career options;
· Guaranteeing that more kids get to be kids, without being overwhelmed by adult-sized problems like hunger, violence or lack of safe places to play and learn; and
· Creating communities of support where young people have access to positive role models and mentors.
But I'm not counting on elected officials to carry this torch alone. My path has been made possible due to the support of many. First and foremost, my mom, who worked tirelessly to overcome extreme challenges to give my siblings and me a fighting chance at success. Then there's my Boys & Girls Club in Lawrence, Kan., which filled the gap when I needed an extra meal, help with homework or a reassuring hug. And I can't forget Tupperware Brands Corporation, which sponsors the Youth of the Year program and gave me $11,000 in college scholarships to help set me on a solid path for my future.
These are great examples of how parents, community organizations and businesses all play a critical role in supporting young people. Parents are our fiercest advocates when it comes to holding schools and governing councils accountable for acting in young people's best interests. Nonprofit and civic organizations must remain steadfast in their commitment to serving young people in the direst circumstances -- those who need them most. Companies in the private sector have more reasons than ever to invest in young people to guarantee the next generation of American workers, leaders and innovators.
We must all commit to making an investment now, or we risk paying a dear price later.
I am listening and watching for politicians to focus on the issues that matter most to young people. I am counting on more parents, nonprofit organizations and businesses to stand behind young people. And, I am looking forward to engaging in this election season as a voter, not as a Republican or a Democrat, but as a young American who wants both parties to keep young people -- America's future -- a top priority.