Growing up, my father always told me that if I dreamed big and worked hard I would achieve much in life. I’ve lived by this for a long time.
I grew up in a single-wide trailer on a tar and gravel road in White, Georgia.
I grew up knowing firsthand what it was like for people to assume they knew what I could — and would — achieve. But during my senior year of high school, a teacher asked where I was planning to continue my education. I planned to graduate high school, enter the workforce and earn an honest living. No one in my family had attended college before.
My teacher helped me fill out my college applications. I borrowed money to pay for school, worked my way through college to support myself, and graduated from the University of Georgia. Getting to where I am today did not come without challenges and without the constant belief that I could achieve what I set my mind to.
There are countless students across the 14th Congressional District who have similar backgrounds. They might doubt their ability to dream and achieve. Whether it’s going to college or vocational school, starting a business or finding the courage to do something different, I want today’s students to know that there is no limit to their opportunity. That’s why I started the Youth Leadership Summit (YLS) six years ago — to invest in the students of Georgia’s 14th Congressional District and help them develop the tools to become leaders, today.
Each year, I ask teachers and school administrators from across the 14th District to recommend students to attend the summit. It’s important that students know the positive impact they can have on their community and our world, regardless of their age or background. The summit is packed with interactive, motivational, teambuilding activities and personal stories from guest speakers and YLS alumni, students who can look back three to six years, share their recent experiences and what they wish they had known when they attended YLS. As students prepare to enter higher education or the workforce, this forum has provided thousands of students an opportunity to learn from and engage with leaders who represent industries and organizations ranging from our nation’s military branches to NASA astronauts, and all sectors in-between.
In 2014, YLS kicked off for the first time in Calhoun. Nearly 200 students attended. Last year, at my fifth annual summit in Dalton, more than 520 students and representatives from 26 schools across 11 counties in northwest Georgia attended. Each year, the event continues to grow, and more students are encouraged to attend and learn from some truly amazing speakers.
Between presentations and discussions, students are encouraged to meet their peers and expand their networks. Students don’t sit at the same tables as their peers from school. Instead, students are placed at tables with students from other counties in the district, creating a more collaborative and unique learning environment. Breaking from the daily norms of the classroom, students are also encouraged to use their phones to take photos and post about the summit on social media sites.
We are just days away from this year’s summit in Dalton, and I know YLS will be bigger and better than ever. This year’s speakers include Emory Proton Therapy Center’s former President, and Pickens High graduate Ashley G. Preisinger; personal development coach and former UGA football team captain Rennie Curran; and YLS alumni presenters David Willoughby, Jake Massingill and Richmond Wrinkle. These powerful and thoughtful individuals will share their personal experiences with our students and offer advice for how to stay motivated and focused on your goals, even in the face of adversity.
I went from the hall of a single-wide trailer to the halls of Congress. Thanks to the support of my teachers and a little north Georgia grit, I was able to achieve much and am proud every day to represent my neighbors and fellow Georgians in Congress.
I want students to know that their circumstances should never limit their opportunity. My goal is to help students find their inspiration and find a way to help inspire others.
To learn more about YLS, visit tomgraves.house.gov.
Next week’s event in Dalton will be livestreamed on my Facebook page, @RepTomGraves.
U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Dalton, represents the 14th Congressional District, which includes Murray and Whitfield counties.