Girls State arrives at Weber State

Thursday , June 05, 2014 - 5:41 AM

Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN -- Hailey Hendicks says she wants to become a different person this week. The Box Elder High School student wants to became a person who better understands the role of government, and is more politically involved.

Rebecca Morrison, from Springville, echoed that wish.

“I want to know more about our government, like the individual offices and the duties of each,” she said. “Instead of just, ‘Oh yeah, that’s something that happens,’ I want to know who does it and why it happens, and I want to become more patriotic.”

Is it possible to change, and learn so much in just one week? The organizers of Girls’ State say yes.

Girls’ State is a week-long civic education program run by the American Legion Auxiliary, in which teenage girls from throughout the state are brought together to learn how government works. Guest speakers include city council members, county commissioners, and even the governor.

“The girls get to create a mock situation, and experience what it would be like to run for office, and to be an elected official,” said Merilee Wilson, director of Girls’ State in Utah.

The idea is to help young women gain leadership skills and confidence, and show them how they can be part of the government process.

“I didn’t really know much about government when I went to Girls’ State,” said Jamie Heiner, of Kaysville. “Now I’m involved in the Weber State Senate, and it’s helped me decide what I want to do with my life.”

Her plan is to major in international relations, and go on to law school.

“After that, I would like to hold some local offices,” she said.

Heiner participated in Girls’ State as a high school student last summer, and returned to help run this year’s event.

Girls’ State started Monday at Weber State University and continues through Saturday. The university will also host Boys’ State, a similar program put on by the American Legion to teach young men about government, from June 9 to June 13.

Wilson says keeping the two programs separate is better for the girls.

“They come here and realize there are other girls like them, who are intelligent, are motivated, and supportive, and throughout the week they encourage each other and help them see what they’re capable of,” she said. “I think with boys here that would change everything, because it would be about what the boys think, rather than what the girls think about themselves.”

Boys’ State has been held at WSU for 28 years, but this is the first time in Girls’ State’s 67-session history that it’s been hosted by WSU.

“Every three years we evaluate our expenses, our program, and what our needs are, and this year we opened up the bids to several universities and colleges,” said Wilson. “After reviewing the bids, we felt that Weber was a good fit for us.”

One of the selling points for WSU is that it’s the home of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service.

Walker, Utah’s first and only female governor, spoke at Girls’ State while she was in office, said Wilson, adding “the Walker Institute has been instrumental in helping us arrange our speakers.”

Gov. Gary Herbert spoke to the girls on Wednesday, urging them to vote.

“I trust our young people to be informed and make important decisions of who to make our elected leaders. The unfortunate thing is that right now young people are AWOL,” he said, according to a Weber State University staff member who was in attendance. “I hope you will start to learn the process, register to vote, and make sure your friends register to vote and participate as well. I made a promise at age 21 that I would never miss the opportunity to vote, and I never have. Learn about the process. Learn about the candidates and then show up to vote. I hope you’ll remember this day when you can say, I was there with the governor and made a commitment with him that I would always show up to vote.”

Marcia White, and Ogden City Council member, was also a speaker at Girls’ State. She said that more women than men are registered to vote, but there aren’t enough women holding public office.

“We rank 45 out of 50,” she said of Utah, noting that only 16.3 percent of elected officials in the state are female.

White illustrated one of the reasons women struggle when it comes to running for office, using her own story.

“I filed to run for city council on the very last day. At 4:45 p.m., I was down there signing my name,” she said. “At 5 p.m., I was freaking out.”

The problem, she said, is that women want everything to be perfect before they decide to make the leap into public life.

“Here’s the difference between men and women: Men, they jump off that cliff and they build their wings on the way down. What do women do? They build their wings and try them on. They go to their friends and say, ‘How does it look?’ They try again. ‘How does it look?’ ” she said.

And if anything’s less than perfect, women take the wings off.

That’s what White was thinking of doing until 5:30 p.m. on the day she put her name on the ballot, but then she thought about her vision for Ogden City.

“At 6 p.m., I said, ‘Let’s get started,’ and I jumped off the cliff and I built my wings on the way down,” she said.

Girls’ State gives participants a chance to build their political toolbox, and test their wings on a small scale. Over the course of the week, they’ll be divided into fictional cities and counties. They’ll register and learn how to vote, and they’ll work in a two-party system to run for office at the city, county or state level. They’ll even campaign, give speeches and write bills, and participate in mock trials and legislative sessions.

Rachel Sybrowsky, of Provo, was part of Girls State last year. She returned as an elected Girls’ State officer and mentor.

“The girls are starting to come out of their shells,” she said on Tuesday. “Yesterday was hard, then they started making friends and realizing they can kind of figure out politics.”

Heather Bergeson, of American Fork, had never considered throwing her hat in the political ring until now.

“Just seeing all of the guest speakers, it’s become an option where I never thought it would be,” she said.

For more information about Girls’ State and Boys’ State, visit

Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.

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