See the young lady with the tan shirt at the end of the table? The one who sits five to the right of President Obama? That's Chaska High School senior-to-be Esther Lee, who was selected to speak at the White House June 7 on issues affecting American's youth.
At 17, Lee was the youngest invitee at a table filled with college students and graduates. Lee was selected through her work with the Minnesota Youth Council and her concerns about the achievement gap and the dropout rate for certain minority populations. Even in Chaska -- a largely Caucasian school with an above average graduation rate -- Lee said she sees this problem.
"I see a huge achievement gap and sort of the little things that affect it and make the achievement gap bigger," she said in a phone interview this morning.
Lee said the invitation came with only two weeks notice, and that the trip to the White House was a whirlwind. Some friends didn't believe she was meeting the president. Others were more impressed that she was meeting Kalpen Modi, the White House Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement, because of his fame from the "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle" movie.
Lee said it wasn't clear whether the president would sit in on any of the discussion on youth issues. But then a door opened and the Obama's dog, Bo, entered the room and circled around the table. The president then talked with the group about a new "How to Make Change" initiative to respond to the concerns and dilemmas of today's youth.
See the video of the president's statements here.
While many events at the White House are choreographed and ceremonial, Lee said she felt the president and his advisers took her concerns seriously. In the discussion before the president's appearance, Lee talked about how many students use artistic forms such as poetry to express themselves and their feelings. She said that should be fostered because it helps students improve their basic skills at the same time.
"In order to do stuff like that," she said, "you have to be able to read, you have to be able to write."
Lee is planning to go to college and pursue a career in education, but hasn't sorted all of her post-high school ambitions out yet. Speaking in the White House was a challenge, because Lee only had a few minutes to express all of the concerns and the hard work of the Minnesota Youth Council and its members. The return home was equally challenging, she said, because she ended up having to make up final exams in literature, calculus and philosophy on the last day of school.
"It was chaotic," she said.
This is the second in the Stuff Kids Do Series about the many remarkable children and young adults in Minnesota. The first featured tween hockey players in Edina raising funds for a Moose Lake girl with cancer.