April 2023 – Collinsville High School senior Tehya Harris is featured in the current issue of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) National Student Council Leadership magazine and e-publication that is sent to thousands of schools across the nation.
Read “What I Learned from Student Council” by Tehya Harris
“There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others.” —Michelle Obama
This is one of my favorite quotes spoken by former First Lady Michelle Obama, one of the most inspirational women that I can think of. To be heard. To be seen. To be authentic. To listen. These are qualities I strive to demonstrate as a young, Black female leader in my school and throughout my community. And student council has helped me develop these qualities.
I am lucky enough to call Collinsville High School (CHS) in Collinsville, IL, home. Our school’s student council is open to everyone on campus who chooses to participate; we have 400 members. I serve as an officer—a committee chair in charge of all our community service projects. There are no qualifications to serve other than a commitment to help make our school the best it can be. As our student council adviser, Kyle Gordon, told us all during freshmen orientation four years ago, “If you want to help improve your school, our student body, this community, and yourself, then you are welcome in our student council.”
My high school career started off normally. I never dreamed that my freshman year would end with the shutting down of our school due to COVID-19 and that I would then have to deal with the continual interruptions throughout my sophomore and junior years caused by the pandemic. But I have come to realize the importance of my student council experiences during this time, even when we met virtually during the 2020–21 school year. It was something consistent in my life during those tough times. We still focused on improving our school, our community, and ourselves.
Reflecting on Senior Year
As I near the end of my senior year, I am truly grateful to have had a “normal” year and experience the many things—homecoming, prom, pep assemblies, and sporting events—that we as students once took for granted. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it has been to be grateful for the opportunities presented to me and to show gratitude to those who make them happen. As a younger leader of color, I was so proud that we were able to continue our work both at school and in the community during COVID, especially in communities where the people being helped looked like me.
The pandemic may have forced us to modify our plans, but it never made us abandon our charge—to offer help wherever and whenever we could. From holding toy drives to hosting a senior citizens’ prom (complete with a DJ, dinner, photos, and table gifts) to keeping students feeling socially and emotionally connected to each other and to our school, we did our part to warm hearts, show compassion, and lift spirits. In May 2022, I was able to attend my first in-person student leadership experience at the Illinois Association of Student Councils’ state conference, and I loved every minute of it! I especially enjoyed the speakers, the student-led workshops, and, most importantly, getting to be with students my own age in person. I decided then and there that I was all in on using my voice and my experiences to not only help shape the world I live in, but to help open the doors for others to do the same.
Years ago, our student council advisers were trained in the Raising Student Voice & Participation (RSVP) program run by National Student Council (NatStuCo) to help activate student voice in schools. Our advisers have continued to promote that idea that CHS would not exist without its student body, and they take very seriously the notion that student voices should be heard and that our opinions matter. To that end, in 2013 our student council helped create a leadership class at CHS and a Student Advisory Committee made up of a diverse group of students who directly interact with our school principal and school district superintendent monthly. Changes that students feel passionate about are discussed—and yes, even implemented—through the cooperation that the RSVP program helped lay the groundwork for so many years ago. These changes include testing and attendance incentives, dress code changes, and the remodeling of locker rooms in the gym, to name a few.
In January, I was also excited to attend my first-ever LEAD Spark conference in Washington, D.C. I grew up hearing the stories from students who came before me about how attending LEAD taught them how to share ideas with others and what it takes to be a successful student leader. Now that I’ve had those same experiences, I know I will draw on the insights I gleaned from the conference’s amazing array of speakers, the networking I engaged in with students from around the nation just like me, and the lasting memories I made that will impact my future leadership skills.
Over the course of the past four years, I have come to understand now more than ever that representation matters. Using your voice matters. Standing up for what you believe in matters. Offering a hand to others matters.
In June, I will be off to boot camp at Fort Jackson, SC, with the United States Army Reserve. I have no doubt that the things I have learned through my experiences with student council at the local, state, and national levels have all helped better prepare me for my own future. As Mrs. Obama says, “Success isn’t about how much money you make; it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
I am committed to living that creed.
Tehya Harris is a senior at Collinsville High School in Collinsville, IL.