We asked Kylah, Oriana and Tarina, three alumnae of Running Start’s High School Program, what they learned from the experience. They described the program as supportive, unmatched and powerful, and they shared the reason why they would “a million times over” recommend it to others and their advice for our Summer 2021 participants.
Interested in the Running Start Summer 2021 High School Program? Learn more and apply by February 15 (for priority review) or April 30 (regular deadline): bit.ly/ApplyHS-Now
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
What was the most valuable moment, experience or connection you had during the High School Program?
Kylah Hughley: I met so many talented, intelligent and beautiful women during this program, so it is definitely difficult to point to one single connection. Susannah, Jess and other Running Start staff still reach out to and check up on me. I follow a lot of the girls on social media as well. As much as I love everyone, the strongest connection gifted to me by the High school program was with Cierra Jackson, 2018 #ILookLikeAPolitician Ambassador and 2016 Miss District of Columbia! She means so much to me and we have so much in common. I can call her at any time and get advice on anything; she truly is a gift.
Oriana Riley: The most valuable thing I gained from the Running Start High School Program was an incomparably close friendship. I met my good friend Niamh during the program and — despite living on opposite coasts — we still keep in touch, talking almost daily. Close female friendships are wonderful and close female friendships for the politically interested are even better. We always say that if I end up running for political office, she’ll be my campaign manager. It has been one of the most inspiring, healthy, and supportive friendships I have ever had the pleasure of having.
Tarina Ahuja: I distinctly remember a moment during the High School Program where Susannah Wellford, Running Start’s CEO, tasked us with reflecting on our own personal motto and asked us what inspires us and keeps us going. So many things clicked for me, as I was reflecting on the various lessons shared and people I had learned from throughout the week. I realized that my “why” for all of it is fueling empathy in any way I can, and it was then and there where I saw myself being able to run for office for the first time.
What did you learn about leadership, politics, campaigning, etc. during the High School Program?
Kylah: I learned that the whole process — deciding to run for office, actually doing it and eventually being elected — is all about relationships. Building strong fruitful relationships is the key to getting people to understand what you’re passionate about, what you’re capable of and why you’re the best person for the job.
Oriana: I learned that there are so many more positions in politics than you could ever imagine. In many of my college essays, I liked to compare politics to chess. The piece you watch is the king (the actual politicians) but there are so many more players (campaign managers, staffers, speechwriters, etc.). I was incredibly grateful to learn this because it means I could have a stake in legislation and in helping people in many more ways than one.
Tarina: At Running Start, I learned that leadership is about amplifying the voices of others. As leaders, it is up to us to keep pushing the boundaries of the status quo to redefine who and what politics is. Running Start is a living manifestation of the fact that our intersectional identities are powerful, vital, unrelenting, and belong in the worlds of politics and governance, and the High School Program taught me that.
What did you learn about yourself during the High School Program?
Kylah: I learned that I wasn’t doing the above all that well! Ha, I mean I knew how to mingle and navigate through social situations but I wasn’t building relationships with solid enough foundations. So after leaving the High School Program and heading into my first year of college, I made it a point to connect with people in meaningful ways. I also wanted to continue staying in constant contact, having more than shallow conversations and just being my authentic self in those relationships.
Oriana: I’m a lot more resilient than I once thought. The game of politics is exhausting, especially as a woman. I was told by a friend at the end of the program, “This week has taught me never to run for office” — which is a perfectly fine takeaway, she thoroughly enjoyed the program but it also helped her realize the harsh realities of being a woman in politics. [Note from Running Start: We agree! However, 79% of 2020 High School Program participants believed that they would be qualified to run for office in the future, and 53% planned to run for student government in the upcoming school year.] For me, coming out of the program, I had never felt more inclined to face those obstacles.
Tarina: During the High School Program, I learned what it means to create a community — specifically, one made of peers equally as passionate about making dynamic change, as well as mentors and sponsors that can guide us as we grow further into ourselves. Unity is inherent in change and Running Start showed me how important it is to be fueled and fuel those around you. We rise together — forever and always.
What was a memorable lesson or take-away from the program? How have you applied that/those lessons to your life since then?
Kylah: Besides learning how many absolute BOSSES are doing amazing work across the country and using that to keep myself motivated, I will never forget the rug story. If you went through the program, you know exactly what I am talking about. That simple relationship building and putting kindness into the world without expectations makes all the difference.
Oriana: It helped me realize just how important gender parity in politics is. While it is incredibly hard to earn a seat at the table as a woman, it is essential to be sitting at that table to make our voices heard. For the past few years, I’ve been doing civic engagement work to make this possible. Additionally, I did a large AP stat project on how gender parity in national legislatures affects a country’s gender equality score (assigned by the World Economic Fund.) If you’re curious about the results, your intuition is probably right. A country’s gender equality increases linearly with the proportion of women in the legislature. Pretty cool, right?
Tarina: Running Start showed me that I can take risks as a woman who is ready to leverage my platform to actually give the mic to the people our institutions silence. In my life since then, I took a risk in co-founding a youth-led, youth-run, policy think tank (alongside some of my beyond incredible Running Start sisters) working to write and advocate for dynamic and sustainable policy at the local, state, and federal levels. Running Start gave me the tools and confidence to know my worth as a woman and human, but, more than that, it showed me how to amplify others in my work.
This year’s High School Program, like our 2020 Program, will be held virtually. What advice do you have for applicants and participants looking to make the most of the experience, especially about connecting with other participants?
Kylah: CONNECT ON SOCIAL MEDIA. I did not have any social media accounts when I attended the High School Program in the summer of 2018. By the end of the program I had an Instagram account with 50 followers that I had just spent an inspiring week with. I love Zoom. Live for it. All of you should get on and just randomize breakout rooms so you get to connect with someone you may not have without this opportunity. Also take lots of screenshots! You want to remember your new friends’ faces.
Oriana: I was lucky enough to attend a virtual writing camp last year and we made a Discord to connect with each other’s and held Zooms outside of camp activities to get to know each other. [Note: Running Start also has a Community Slack to keep participants connected!] We still keep regularly in touch through both of those platforms. One of the most important things about programs like these is the connections and the friends you make, so make an effort to reach out to others. Even though reaching out to someone first might be awkward, they’ll be so grateful you did. Make! Those! Connections!
Tarina: Never be afraid to reach out. Whether it be a random Zoom DM or Facetime call, friendships, especially in a virtual environment, take risk and take effort. Take the first step — you will not regret it.
Would you recommend the High School Program? Why or why not?
Kylah: Absolutely. I had so much support there. That’s what I loved so much about the program. There was always someone who was willing to walk beside you or behind you and push you along! Be it staff or participants, anything I needed — advice, someone to eat dinner with or a tampon — someone always had my back.
Oriana: Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You will have the most incredible opportunities, meet so many wonderful people and become incredibly prepared for potentially pursuing politics. It is an unmatchable experience.
Tarina: Yes times a billion. The High School Program has given me more than I can express in words. It shows young women of all identities that their stories, their passions and their ideas matter. The experience is one that makes you reflect, introspect and act. It is one that creates indivisible connections that catalyze us forward continuously and unremittingly. Women belong in places of power — let Running Start’s High School Program help get you there.
Kylah Hughley: Kylah Hughley grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii and is now in her third year at Howard University studying psychology and community development. At Howard, Kylah is a member of the Howard University Student Association, Howard University Mock Trial team and Undergraduate Assistantship Program. She has worked with several DC-based nonprofits including Voice for a Second Chance, Urban Alliance and Housing Up. She currently serves as an ambassador for a civic engagement group, Black Girls Who Have a lot to Say. Kylah is passionate about quality education, reproductive justice, and Black womxn’s empowerment. Off campus, Kylah spends her time cooking and baking, organizing with her community, talking about Howard and hanging out with her twin sister Kyrah.
Oriana Riley: Oriana Riley is a senior at Conestoga High School who is looking forward to studying Poli Sci and Creative Writing at Stanford University in the fall. In her free time, she writes, runs, stress-bakes, and watches late night political comedy shows. She attended the Running Start High School Program in 2018 and is an outreach intern for New Voters, a civic engagement nonprofit dedicated to registering high schoolers to vote.
Tarina Ahuja: Tarina Ahuja is a freshman at Harvard College who cares deeply about social justice and civil rights issues. She is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit Young Khalsa Girls, a grassroots organization founded in 2012 with a mission of empowering young girls to serve their communities through selfless service and advocacy. She is also the co-founder and president of The Greater Good Initiative, a youth-led, youth-run, national policy think-tank working to write and advocate for policy at the local, state, and federal levels in the sectors of economy, public health, education, civil rights, and environment. She is the youth ambassador for the National Democratic Institute and Running Start’s DISRUPTHER program, an initiative envisioned to increase women’s political participation around the world. She was the youth keynote speaker at the Madeline Albright lunch and the Foreign Policy HerPower Summit in 2019. She is motivated, determined, and driven to be a person of change, focusing on implementing solutions for our society centered on empathy. At Harvard, she currently serves as a representative on the Undergraduate Council , a representative on the Service to Society Council, and chair of the Institute of Politics CIVICS program.