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Local high school students speak virtually with state and national leaders

VirtualYouthExperienceWTextThis year marks the first Virtual Youth Experience, a week-long web conference sponsored by South Carolina’s electric cooperatives, designed to bring together high-achieving high school student from across the state to meet with various local, state and national leaders.

The 2020 Washington Youth Tour and Cooperative Youth Summit summer trips were cancelled due to COVID-19. The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina created this virtual experience as an alternative where students could still participate in an unforgettable experience.

Students kicked off the experience with an introduction to cooperatives. On Monday, June 22, students spoke with S.C. Supt. of Education Molly Spearman.

On Tuesday, students got to speak with Dr. Linda Bell, the state’s chief epidemiologist. She answered questions from students regarding what a “new normal” is going to look like in the state.

“The ‘new normal’ in South Carolina, and across America, is the use of masks almost everywhere we go, while maintaining social distancing,” said Bell. “People, especially young people, need to understand that social interaction is actually possible under the new ‘normal.'”

Governor Henry McMaster also spoke to the student about the spread of COVID-19 across South Carolina.

Gov McMaster VYE 2020
Gov. Henry McMaster speaks to Virtual Youth Experience students from his office. Photo Courtesy: S.C. Governor’s Office

“We know a lot more about the virus than we did in the beginning,” said McMaster. “Those who are really endangered by the disease are the older generation. Knowing what we know now, we are going to have to develop a way to keep the virus from spreading to the older generation.”

You can view highlights from Dr. Bell’s dialogue here.

You can view highlights from Gov. McMaster’s dialogue here.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) smiles as he greets students taking part in the Virtual Youth Experience.

Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) spent time with students on Wednesday. Scott, one of only three African Americans in the U.S. Senate, took a question from Emily Rabon, a rising senior at Aynor High School, regarding the removal of Confederate monuments across the nation.

“I think we should be very careful of our strong desire to purge all reminders of how evil the heart can be,” said Scott. “I think instead of tearing down statues, I’d like to see more statues of people other than Martin Luther King, Jr. – who happened to be African American. I’d love to see statues of Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington and Washington Carver. There are so many people in the African American community who we know so little about.”

Sen. Graham also took a question from Lando Leyva, a student from Hilton Head Island High School, about the issue of race and policing.

“We’ve got to admit we have a problem in policing,” said Graham. “I think most cops are great, but we need to change our system to reinforce the idea that police officers need to look more like the communities they police. We need more minority officers, we need better training and we have to impress upon cops that deadly force is available, but it should be your last resort.”

You can view highlights from Sen. Scott’s dialogue here.

You can view highlights from Sen. Graham’s dialogue here.

Students also spoke with Cindi Scoppe and Avery Wilks of The Post and Courier.

Rev. Charles Jackson and Rep. James Clyburn spent time with the students on Thursday.

Jackson, senior pastor at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia, spoke to students about the importance of developing community and positive race relations.

“Those of us in the church might want to do some serious soul searching as it relates to race and racism in our lives,” said Jackson. “Is there something in our own lives – in our own hearts – that might keep us from being a loving person towards those of a different race? I encourage these young people to develop relationship with those around them who might of a different prospective or a different race… It’s all about developing a sense of community.”

Clyburn, who represents South Carolina’s sixth congressional district and is the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, spoke to students about finding common ground.

Rep. Jim Clyburn discusses rural broadband and finding common ground with others.

“I have a philosophy that I try to live by, that is if the distance between me and my opponent is five steps, I don’t mind taking three of them,” said Clyburn. “I never mind meeting someone more than half way.”

Students were also encouraged to hear of Clyburn’s advocacy for the expansion of accessible and affordable rural broadband. Clyburn described high-speed internet as an essential component of bringing rural America into the 21st century.

You can view highlights from Rev. Jackson’s dialogue here.

You can also view highlights from Rep. Clyburn’s dialogue.

A surprise rock star on the Friday agenda turned out to be Jim “Soni” Sonefeld, drummer for Hootie and the Blowfish. He met with Virtual Youth Experience students to discuss mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jim Hootie
Jim “Soni” Sonefeld from Hootie and the Blowfish speaks with students during the Virtual Youth Experience.

Sonefeld faced challenges with anxiety and depression, including substance abuse, after finding fame in the early 1990s.

“It’s incredibly important to acknowledge those anxieties and those fears,” said Sonefeld. “For a long time I stuffed them under by bed… I used unhealthy things to make myself feel better. It’s so important to acknowledge them by talking to your parents or a psychologist. We have these anxieties and we have to get them out.”

Sonefeld also spoke of his hope for the future during this unprecedented time.

“One of the biggest challenges in life is figuring out we have options and being willing to use them,” said Sonefeld. “It’s tough because you have dreams, whether you’re 16 or 66, you have dreams and it’s only your responsibility to adapt. It’s an inside job.”

You can view highlights from Sonefeld’s dialogue here.

A total of 79 students – all rising high school juniors or seniors – participated in the Virtual Youth Experience. These students represent 19 electric cooperatives across South Carolina.


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