Rosemount High School senior Shaza Hussein is reinvigorated to make a difference in her country after a visit to Washington, D.C.

Hussein, 17, was one of two students selected to represent Minnesota at the 57th annual U.S. Senate Youth Program Washington Week, held March 2-9.

“Shaza is an extraordinary student who exhibits Rosemount High School’s core beliefs in everything she does,” said RHS Principal Pete Roback. “We are proud and truly amazed in how she represents our learning community.”

Established in 1962, the Senate Youth Program serves as a way to increase Americans’ understanding of the three branches of government and learn the importance of being an active part of the democratic process. Two students from each state are chosen in this competitive selection process. The other Minnesota youth chosen was Yuxuan Geng, a senior at Rochester Mayo High School.

Hussein will also receive a $10,000 scholarship for her undergraduate study. She has been accepted at Stanford University and is waiting to hear back from other universities. Hussein plans to study environmental sustainability.

“There are some students who teach you more than you teach them. Shaza is one of those students,” said RHS Assistant Principal Kim Budde. “She is a bright young woman with a heart and motivation for the purpose of the greater good, and Shaza will make this world a better place, and our world is a better place with young people like her leading the charge.”

Dedicated to pursuing academic excellence so she can contribute to the world, Hussein serves as president of Rosemount High School’s National Honor Society. She is active in leading the RHS Democrats, she serves in a leadership role on the Youth Environmental Activists of Minnesota, and is the co-founder of “Sell Art, Not Humans” event that raises money to help victims of sex trafficking.

Witnessing government up close

The trip to Washington, D.C. cemented Hussein’s thoughts about how fortunate she is to live as an American citizen in the United States.

“It definitely did invigorate my passion for politics and throughout my being busy in school that passion had kind of faded away in time,” Hussein said. “Going to Washington kind of revitalized that spirit inside of me to go into politics and really make a change for the country.

“I got to hear from a bunch of amazing speakers and it was very interactive. I wasn’t expecting that before I went, and whenever we went to hear a speaker, they would give a 15- to 20-minute speech and then they would open the majority of time with us to question and answers.”

Hussein met U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. She is proud to say she met U.S. President Donald Trump in the east room of the White House for 15 minutes and was able to pose for a big group photo.

“It was very interesting because I think many of the people there did not agree with his (Trump’s) politics and there was some contention about people shaking his hands, but for me specifically, even though I do not necessarily agree with his politics, I still wanted to shake his hand,” Hussein said. “I felt like I was not necessarily shaking Trump’s hand, but I was shaking the president’s hand and that is the highest office in the land and that is something that I respect about this country.”

When asked about the environmental policy called the Green New Deal, Hussein said this kind of broad government initiative may take time to embrace and implement.

“With any new policy change in the United States, it is extremely controversial at first and many may think it is not necessarily possible at first, and I think what we need is that big jump and shock factor,” Hussein said. “We need to be able to get there because if the Green New Deal is not the solution, then what is the solution?”

Environmental activism

“The majority of my involvement lies outside of school - I am involved with a lot of environmental justice organizations in the Twin Cities area,” Hussein said.

She serves on the leadership core for the Youth Environmental Activists in Minnesota, a group created by the nonprofit Yea! MN. The group, led by youth, promotes climate literacy and political education within the Twin Cities.

As a student leader of the Can’t Wait Campaign, she said this group is a large, inclusive group in Minnesota that works on three goals: to advance the Minnesota Green New Deal, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a fossil fuel free future, and stop the construction of any fossil fuel construction.

When asked how her environmental activism was sparked, Hussein said in her ninth grade science class.

“It was my first introduction into climate and it really got me passionate about it and I wouldn’t say it was one person who got me interested - I literally found these when I was researching environmental organizations,” she said.

Personal climate story

When asked to share her own personal connection with the environment, Hussein talked about her extended family who live in Sudan.

“I think for me, my biggest thing is that (I think) a lot of family back home because I do come from a long line of agricultural farmers in north Sudan, a country that is kind of borderline dessert and is projected at the current rate that (it) could become uninhabitable in the next 20 years,” Hussein said.

Due to harsh weather conditions of drought and dust storms that take the moisture out of the air, she said this weather negatively impacts farming and productivity. Her maternal grandfather makes a livelihood as a farmer.

“To see the productivity of their farm decrease and with that subsequently the quality of their life decrease and their standard of living decrease is a big connection for me,” she said.

By engaging in environmental activism here, she said “It is a way I can reconnect with my culture and my home because I do have a lot more opportunity than they do.”

“For me here where I think I do have a louder voice, it is important to fight for those communities that do not necessarily have that voice and don’t necessarily have the political clout to be able to be an advocate for those communities back home,” she said. “I have never been a complacent person and I think it is important to be an advocate for those who don’t necessarily have as much political clout or whose voices go unheard.”

American dream

Hussein plans to fulfill her parents’ aspiration. They wanted to give her and her five siblings the chance to work hard to pursue an excellent education and reach the “American Dream.” Her parents moved from Sudan to Canada and then the United States to pursue a better life for each of their children.

Even though the entire trip was memorable, one of Hussein’s favorite experiences was eating a meal in the National Archives rotunda near the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

In college, she plans to pursue a rigorous academic path in the field of computational sustainability.

“This is merging computer science with mathematical concepts like machine learning, artificial intelligence and statistical methods with environmental issues,” Hussein said.

She hopes to work to create a more sustainable future and create ways to sustain the Earth’s natural resources for future generations.

“I think just kind of seeing government action just reinvigorated my respect for how an amazing democracy we have in the United States, and the fact that the United States is not necessarily unique in that but our way of doing it is,” Hussein said while reflecting on her trip to Washington. “I think as citizens we kind of get disconnected from politics in that way and we have our opinions, but we don’t necessarily understand how it works or we don’t understand the privileges we have compared to other countries.”

Sitting to talk with Hussein, she is no doubt thoughtful, humble and confident.

Making friends with student leaders from across the country, she said “We joked at the farewell party and I said goodbye to future senators who have already done so much in their own community.”