More than 500 SkillsUSA students, teachers and leaders — representing 29 states — traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in SkillsUSA’s annual Washington Leadership Training Institute (WLTI), held Sept. 17-21. During the event, attendees learned to become effective leaders, gained an understanding of how the federal government works, witnessed some of the inspiring history that helped shape the United States and advocated for SkillsUSA and career and technical education directly with senators and congressional representatives.
The group gathered on Saturday, Sept. 17, for a Welcome Dinner at the conference headquarters: the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center hotel in Virginia. The SkillsUSA National Officer Team kicked off the conference and organized student huddle groups for training that began the next morning.
Training at the event focused on the SkillsUSA Framework Essential Elements of Professionalism, Communication and Leadership. Sessions included “Advocacy in CTE,” “Preparing for Legislative Visits,” “CTE Hot Topics” and “Communicating Using the POWERR Formula.”
At lunchtime on Sunday, students left their huddle groups and joined advisors for an Advocacy Panel led by SkillsUSA’s college/postsecondary vice president Katahdin Javer. The panelists gave insights on what students could expect during their congressional visits and how to maximize their effectiveness. Speaking to the students were Nick Rockwell, legislative director for Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA); past SkillsUSA national officer Ambuja Sharma; and Jori Houck, media relations and advocacy associate for the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). Sunday was capped with a relaxing visit to the SkillsUSA National Leadership Center in Leesburg for a picnic dinner with the staff, games, music and dancing.
Students spent Monday morning paying their respects to victims of 9/11 during a somber ceremony at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. Afterward, they split into state delegations and toured the Smithsonian museums, reuniting as a full group for a twilight bus tour of the monuments that was narrated by the national officers.
On Tuesday morning, a CTE Rally was held adjacent to the U.S. Capitol to gain visibility for SkillsUSA and generate excitement for the advocacy meetings state delegations were about to conduct. One of the rally’s speakers was Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), chair of the CTE Caucus. Thompson applauded SkillsUSA students, saying, “I appreciate you for pursuing a career and technical education pathway. We are glad to have you in Washington. I am always so impressed with your confidence and your knowledge. Your experiences and stories shape U.S. Representatives regarding which policies we put forward and which ones we put into law. From agriculture to manufacturing, from healthcare to the arts, CTE programs work to develop America’s most valuable resource: people!”
Joining Thompson at the podium was Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.). “I want you to know your voices matter,” said Kilmer. “You are speaking up and standing up for our economy and everyone who has a dream of being part of it. Thank you for using your voice. Thank you for going out and meeting with our elected officials. Your presence will make a difference.”
Senator Mike Braun (R-Ind.) agreed. “It’s important that you look at all career options out there. Through CTE, by the time you get to a crossroads in life, you will be prepared for whatever you want to do. Education is mostly driven at the state and local level. Get involved at the state level and get involved with your schools and carry this message across the finish line. Finally, we have arrived at a better paradigm in education, and you are leading the way.”
The elected officials said there is no group of advocates more convincing than our future skilled workers, and no one better equipped to demonstrate the value of SkillsUSA than those whose lives have been changed by it.
Also speaking at the kickoff was SkillsUSA Executive Director Chelle Travis, who said, “This is the day when words transform into action, power and purpose. Today, you will be exercising one of the greatest privileges in our democracy: to advocate for something you passionately believe in. Your voices are worthy of being heard, and together, they are powerful and impossible to ignore.”
After the rally and photos, the group broke into state delegations, ready to put their newfound knowledge to work through more than 40 separate visits with state senators and congressional representatives. Students advocated for SkillsUSA and career and technical education during conversations they prepared for during the week. The result was an incredible sense of pride and fulfillment knowing that they’d made their voices heard on a topic they’re truly passionate about. “When I first heard we were going to be meeting with our senators, I was a nervous wreck,” says Abby Johnson of Tennessee. “But I do feel like the skills I’ve learned in SkillsUSA prepared me for those meetings, and it was a lot less nerve-wracking. I feel very proud of myself and our organization to be able to get out there and get the word out about SkillsUSA.”
The full group wrapped up the day at Arlington National Cemetery, where SkillsUSA national officers took part in a moving wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
As they earned their coveted National Statesman awards demonstrating their SkillsUSA knowledge and civic awareness, paired with the experiences and reflection that took place that week, culminating with a reflection interview at the closing session, students were challenged to take their new advocacy skills home and share them. SkillsUSA National High School President Grace Smith summed up the conference, saying, “We are walking away with new skills, walking away with new connections, walking away with new confidence and walking away as better leaders. Now, it is our time to be an example to the rest of the world. It is our time to shape the future that we will live in. Find what you are passionate about and advocate for it. Be the voice that speaks out.”
In 2022, as it’s been for more than 50 years, WLTI participants learned that their voices matter and that they hold the power to effect positive change in their schools, communities, states and nation. That knowledge is the legacy of WLTI, and in 2022, that legacy continued boldly.
See the WLTI conference highlights in the 2022 WLTI recap video.
Visit our albums to view and save your favorite WLTI photos.