A chorus of “Hi! Are you guys going to Albany, too?” was repeated time and again as we waited in line for the Amtrak train. As we joined pairs of friendly, engaging students on the train, it wasn’t long before we were making friends as we traveled through the picturesque Hudson Valley to the state capital where we participated in the League of Women Voters’ annual Students in Albany conference on May 19 through May 22.
Within minutes of our arrival at the hotel near the Capitol building, we introduced ourselves to other students from across the state — from the eastern tip of Long Island to Chautauqua County on the Lake Erie shoreline, from central Manhattan to deeply rural upstate communities, from the wealthiest suburbs in Nassau County to struggling northern post-industrial cities — whose backgrounds were representative of New York State’s incredible, often overlooked, diversity. It was an eye-opening break from the bubble of Scarsdale.
The conference began with an initial presentation by Jennifer Wilson, the League of Women Voters’ former legislative director, who spoke about the workings of state government. After that, we settled in to talk with our fellow delegates, making personal connections and discussing state issues ranging from education funding equity, gun policy and, perhaps most divisively, we drew battle lines for a three-day argument against Long Island’s delegation concerning the location of the upstate-downstate border.
The next day, Albany Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy addressed our group, giving us room to ask questions and to practice lobbying on specific issues — notably the state’s new plastic bag ban — as we prepared to shadow our own legislators in the afternoon.
In the State Assembly, we shadowed Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a former president of the Scarsdale League of Women Voters, as she worked through the day’s legislative session. Listening to the assemblywoman in meetings with staff and committees on the Assembly floor, we learned about the long path between the drafting of a bill and its signing by the governor. With her, we reviewed memoranda of opposition against legislation, spoke to general staff on committees needed to get bills passed, and worked with her own committee on corporations as she decided which bills to advance in the final weeks of legislative session.
Through discussions with Assemblywoman Paulin and her staff, we learned about legislation she plans to sponsor concerning pet grooming and the abandonment of cemeteries — two examples of subjects that don’t grab headlines and are overlooked by the public despite being vital toward our day-to-day lives.
Finally, we watched a series of votes on the day’s agenda as the speaker moved in a somewhat chaotic fashion through two dozen bills. We watched the scattered Assembly members pass legislation before us, witnessing the end of the long process laid out by Assemblywoman Paulin and her staff.
After returning to the hotel, we participated in a series of presentations. The first was by a member of the local library board and a county legislator. The presenter opened our eyes to just how expansive public office can be. We learned how local issues facing town and county offices affect our daily lives and we learned how easy it can be to run for office and make a difference.
A group of presenters from the New York Public Interest Research Group and the Alliance for Quality Education educated us on our own issues and how they affect every corner of the state and taught us strategies for advocating our own interests, while continuing our discussion of lobbying and creating change.
The next day, we returned to the Capitol to meet with our state senator’s staff. With two other students from our senatorial district, we ventured through the hallways of the legislative building in search of Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ office. There we met members of her team who discussed local issues as well as the major topics in Albany. Trailing two members of her staff through the Capitol, we entered the tucked-away legislative library and then met the majority leader as she emerged from a meeting of the Democratic caucus. A larger-than-life figure, Sen. Stewart-Cousins spoke to us about her professional journey and her responsibilities before taking us to the Senate chamber to watch the day’s proceedings. Outside the chamber, we saw a different form of politics — the advocacy we had learned about — as we encountered dozens of Green Light protestors, advocating for legislation to allow driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. We watched as several protesters were arrested and taken away while their fellow protestors cheered them on and we discussed the issue with our senator’s staff and our fellow students.
The Students Inside Albany program was extremely rewarding. In addition to being academically stimulating, the program was a lot of fun, in part due to the student-to-student bonding that occurred in evening activities, such as bowling and foosball. In three days, we covered every part of state government, from county legislators to the Court of Appeals. We walked in the footsteps of our legislators, joining them on the floor and in meetings with their staff and colleagues. We toured the halls of power of New York State, from the courtrooms to the legislative chambers to the governor’s office. We learned about specific issues and advocacy as a whole, which has made us more engaged and more active citizens. But beyond the incredible levels of access and information we gained, the opportunity to meet so many bright and driven students from across the state was similarly unparalleled. We made friends with whom we’ve kept in contact since the conference, and we made connections that we will preserve into the future.
— Rishabh Gharekhan and Andrew Morin, both 11th-graders from Scarsdale High School, were selected to attend the 19th annual Students Inside Albany program sponsored by the League of Women Voters of New York State Education Foundation Inc. and the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale. The program is designed to increase high school students’ awareness of their responsibility in representative government and provide information about the tools necessary for meeting that responsibility. For more information on the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale, visit lwvs.org.