Before sixth-formers celebrated their last day of class, Dean William Waters' government students enjoyed a special one — featuring a visit with Tram Nguyen, State Representative of Brooks School's 18th Essex District.
The Democrat, a former legal aid attorney who took office in January, came to campus on May 17 and talked for the better part of an hour with the students about her career, running for office, what it's like to be a politician, and why it's so important for young people to get involved in the issues that matter to them.
"Talking to someone who is living the life I potentially want to live was so interesting," said Kailey O'Neill '19. "As someone who will be attending a liberal arts college and plans to attend law school, it is reassuring to hear that working hard, setting goals and sticking to your beliefs can get you to the place you want to end up."
Nguyen — whose areas of representation include Andover, Boxford, North Andover and Tewksbury — detailed her path from working as a lawyer for an aid organization to politics because she said she wanted to "look into different ways that I could work on policy to impact more people, versus one person at a time, one family at a time."
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Now as a state rep. she said, "I make it a top priority to be in the community and meet with people so they can let me know what issues matter to them and affect them."
Admitting to students that, "I don't agree with people most of the time," she insisted, "My job is to listen and take in their views before moving forward with policies or putting forth a bill. I want to make sure I'm taking all of the different perspectives into consideration."
The issues Nguyen discussed with students ran the gamut, too. Current events, upcoming legislation, partisanship, the census, the environment and reproductive rights: No issue was off the table in the engaging discussion.
"We're working on so many exciting things right now — getting 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, for instance," she said. The government students had previously discussed initiatives to lowering the voting age in class and had much to say on the subject, both in support of and against the idea.
Nguyen offered this for their consideration: "The bracket of people who vote the most are people 65 and above, and you all, are the lowest. So think about it. They're voting on climate change that might not affect them, but you're going to be around for a while. You might want to vote on that."
She and her collaborators are "trying to pass 'no excuse' absentee voting," she also shared. "Right now, you have to give a reason why you want to vote absentee and we want to get rid of that barrier," she explained. "We just want to encourage voting. We want to expand participation."
Fielding questions from students, next, Nguyen weighed in on whether it's better to register to vote in a home or college state ("Depends on the issues you care about and politics of each location"), working with representatives ("We're always looking for people to write op-eds, letters to the editor, and help on messaging") and if it's easier to pass legislation as a democrat in a democratic state ("I think it's a misconception that Massachusetts is a deep blue state").
"The reality is even my district was held by a Tea-Party Republican for eight years," Nguyen said. "And that's not unique. There are many other districts like ours here where people have different takes and perspectives that we need to take into consideration."
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Not that it's easy, the politician added, noting that since she took office at the start of the year, more than 6,000 bills were filed. "I got sworn in in January, and then they gave us until February to file our own bills and to co-sponsor the different bills," she told students. "I can guarantee to you, none of us read all 6,000 bills. There's just not enough time in the world — and that, again, goes back to the point of why it's so important for people to be engaged. The bills that I paid attention to were the bills that I had worked on prior, or bills that people I knew had worked on, or ones that constituents reached out about and said 'Have you seen this bill?'"
Before she departed, Nguyen urged students to get involved themselves. Just as she — the first Vietnamese-American woman to serve in the Massachusetts Legislature — has done by going into office, so too can young people change the landscape of politics as we know it.
"I'm the very first Vietnamese woman to get elected in the history of the Commonwealth," she said. "It's 2019. That is not OK. We have 28.5 percent of women in the state legislature right now and that is not OK either, because we make up more than 50 percent of the population."
The lack of diversity doesn't end with race and gender either, she added, "It's age too."
As a thirty-something legislator Nguyen said, "I'm one of the youngest people in the state house. I think the average age is 60 years old."
"We want to get younger people involved. We want to get younger people into politics," she said, following up with a challenge: "This year one of my colleagues in the State House is only 24 years old. So you guys have about, what, six years left?"
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