A Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School senior has a newfound passion in life: encouraging her classmates to vote.It’s no small task as teens typically have the lowest level of political involvement. For instance, Census data show that in 2010, just 31 percent of American citizens either 18 or 19 years old were registered to vote, and of those only about half voted in the 2010 election.
Statistics aside, Miranda Vileikis remains undaunted, relentlessly reminding her classmates to register to vote once they turn 18.
“A lot of times I hear, ‘Well, maybe if I get around to it,’” said Vileikis, 17, who has four months to go before she’ll be old enough to cast her own ballot.
“I have this whole 20-minute spiel I give people. I tell them that if they don’t like what’s going on with the president, they need to do something to change it.”
Vileikis has been spreading her go-vote message since participating in Congressional Classroom late last month. The four-day, five-night experience is sponsored by the Randy Roberts Foundation.
Randy Roberts was director of government relations for Publix Super Markets for six years until his death in 2009. The Randy Roberts Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides public service initiatives, civic engagement opportunities and resources to students who want to make a difference in their communities.
To be selected for Congressional Classroom, Vileikis wrote an essay about her long-held interest in government and law, and underwent an interview process. She was one of 15 students from the 12th Congressional District selected to participate.
“I thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Vileikis, who learned of Congressional Classroom after Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School Director Bridget Fetter encouraged students to apply.
“Any chance to bring to life what the students learn in class is something we want to encourage,” Fetter said.
As part of the Congressional Classroom experience, Vileikis visited famous sites in Washington, D.C., including the Supreme Court and FBI and NASA headquarters. She also got to watch a congressional debate and participate in a mock Congress.
What proved most impactful, though, was a conversation with U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, about the lack of political involvement among young people.
“I asked him if he goes to many high schools and he explained that he doesn’t because that’s where there is the least amount of voters,” Vileikis said.
With that, Vileikis was inspired. In addition to encouraging her classmates simply to register to vote, she hopes they’ll start paying attention to the political issues that impact them so they’ll be more informed when they go to the polls.
Given the current political climate, Vileikis is something of an anomaly. Nowadays one doesn’t have to look far to find examples of citizens who feel frustrated and alienated by the American political system – just look at the Occupy Wall Street protests or Tea Party movement.
Vileikis, meanwhile, returned from Washington, D.C., with a sense of empowerment. Her trip helped her to realize that voting is a sort of license to enact change, she said.
“One person can make a difference,” said Vileikis, who lives in Haines City. “But you have to get involved before you can do anything.”
Vileikis’ grandmother said she’s noticed something different in her granddaughter since she came home.
“She’s all pumped up about getting teenagers to vote,” said Jackie Pi, who legally adopted Vileikis in 2004. “She doesn’t want to go into politics, but she’s so impressed by everything that she saw and learned. She got to learn it all firsthand.”
Randy Roberts Foundation Founder Sara Roberts said she was also impressed by Vileikis’ enthusiasm.
“She’s very sharp and thoughtful,” Roberts said. “She has a genuine interest in the way government works and why it’s important for youth to be involved.”
Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School is one of two public charter high schools operated by Polk State College where students earn college credits while fulfilling high school requirements.
Vileikis is on track to earn her Associate in Arts degree by the end of her senior year. She plans to study equine veterinary medicine at the University of Florida, but she’s also interested in a career in journalism.
Read more about this story in The Ledger.