Budding politician: Ocheyedan teen represents Iowa during Girls Nation program
OCHEYEDAN, Iowa -- It was just a few days before Cortney Schmidt was due to leave for Girls Nation in Washington, D.C., and the Ocheyedan teen could hardly contain her enthusiasm.
"I'm so excited," she bubbled, a huge smile lighting up her face. "I've got my suitcase all packed."
That was more than a week ago, and Cortney is today completing her stay in Washington, where she expected to make new friends, take in the sights and learn about the federal government.
Her attitude before she left for this trip was markedly different from earlier this summer, when she went to Girls State in Ames, Iowa.
"I wasn't exactly keen on going," she admitted. "I called home Sunday night and said, "Mom, I'm homesick. Come pick me up. I don't want to be here.'"
But her parents, Doug and Renee Schmidt, insisted that she stick it out. And Cortney decided that if she had to stay, she'd make the best out of the experience.
Girls State/Girls Nation is a program of the American Legion Auxiliary. Its goals are to: develop leadership and pride in American citizens; to educate participants about our system of government; to instill in participants a greater understanding of American traditions; and to stimulate a desire to maintain our government processes.
Cortney, 17, is going to be a senior this fall at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School. She's active in several sports, band, marching band, choir, show choir, FFA, 4-H and yearbook, and also works at the Subway in Sibley and helps out on the family farm. Along with six other girls, she was nominated for the Girls State program and was one of two who initially indicated a willingness to participate.
"They couldn't decide between the two of us, so they pulled a name out of a hat," she related. "The other girl actually got selected but couldn't go because of a youth group trip."
In Ames, Cortney plunged into the Girls State program. Each dorm floor was considered a separate city with its own government.
"Thirty kids in my city ran for mayor, and I was elected," Cortney explained. "It was awesome. The next day, my city talked me into running for governor. They split us into parties -- the Nationalists and the Federalists. I was a Nationalist, and 26 of us ran for governor. I made it to the primary ballot. There were four candidates selected for the primary ballot of our party, and we had an open forum that night where people could ask any questions they wanted: How do you feel about abortion? How do you feel about teen pregnancy? What would you do for a Klondike bar? I ended up missing governor by four votes. That night I ran for lieutenant governor, and I missed by four votes again. So I was appointed as a district judge and ran a mock trial. As mayor, we had city council meetings every day and made ordinances."
Cortney is comfortable with public speaking, so that part of running for office and serving as her city's mayor wasn't too difficult, although some of her speeches were put together on the fly.
"I probably gave 15 speeches while I was there, and most of the time I didn't have more than 20 minutes to prepare," she said. "Either you skipped lunch and wrote your speech or ate and wrote it at the same time. Most of the time, I would write an opening and improv it from there."
Despite all the time she spent campaigning and writing speeches, Cortney found a little time for fun, too.
"We had a toga party one night," she said. "I had probably a group of 20 girls that I hung out a lot with. We'd go to my room at night -- we always had an hour of reflection-- and we'd play games, do stuff like that. We still keep in touch. A couple of them have come to my house, and we've gone down to the Lakes."
What did Cortney take home from her Girls State experience?
"I gained a lot of confidence, I'd say courage, to get up and tell people who I am and what I stand for," she reflected. "You knew you had to be out there and get their attention. I also gained responsibility. You knew where you had to go, where you had to be. I think my parents are happy about that.
"It's a lesson in government, but you can apply it to your everyday life."
She also received the opportunity for an even bigger experience -- Girls Nation. Two girls are selected from every participating state to advance to the national event.
"Our cities nominated us," she said of the selection process. "After the governor stuff, I was a little bummed, but I had a ton of fun there, met a lot of people and had an awesome city that really supported me. And they nominated me for Girls Nation, which is an honor in itself. Even if you don't go, you're up for a bunch of scholarships. When the votes got close, they gave us a sheet to fill out, and we were interviewed by the heads of the American Legion Auxiliary. They just asked about what you did at home and about parliamentary procedure, because you have to know it pretty well at Girls Nation, and I'm well-versed in it through FFA. They asked about your majors at school -- just kind of got to know you. It was pretty low key, like a bunch of grandmas talking to you. They announced the winners at the inauguration ball on Friday."
Cortney didn't anticipate being chosen, but had called home to ask her parents if she could say yes, just in case she was selected. She knew that Girls Nation would coincide with the county fair as well as her family vacation. But her parents encouraged her to take advantage of the experience in the nation's capital and were on hand when she was announced as one of two Girls Nation representatives from her state.
Whereas Girls State is modeled after local and state government, Girls Nation is based on the federal government.
"At state, the highest office was governor. At nation, it's president," Cortney explained. "At Girls Nation, we'll be the Hawkeye senators, and then we'll run for other offices."
She and the other Iowa representative also have to present a bill and had been cooperating on one dealing with ethanol promotion.
"We'll do a lot of sightseeing, and choir goes along with Girls Nation, so we'll learn some songs the first couple of days, and when we go to the monuments, we'll sing," Cortney said. "The girl that went last year said it's really cool because people stop and listen to you. There's a strict dress code -- khaki skirts, polo shirts. We get to meet President Bush, and we have a ball one night with the Boys Nation guys. They shut down a part of the Smithsonian Museum for us while we're out there, and we get to tour it by ourselves."
Before she left for Washington, Cortney was considering running for higher office at Girls Nation, if the circumstances were right.
"I didn't even think I would run for mayor or anything" at Girls State, she reflected. "But what's there to lose? I probably will."
And perhaps her experiences at Girls State and Girls Nation will someday lead to genuine political aspirations.
"I want to go to Iowa State or Minnesota State University for teaching," she said about her future plans. "I was set on elementary education, but now, after getting into the politics, it might be cool to do something with that. I never considered myself political before."