Girls State offers opportunities to learn about government, leadership

City, county and state officials are elected each year at Alabama Girls State.

City, county and state officials are elected each year at Alabama Girls State.

Hundreds of rising high school seniors from across the state spent June 4-9 at Troy University participating in the 81st session of the American Legion Auxiliary’s Alabama Girls State program learning about all levels of state government and making memories that will last a lifetime.

Every American Legion Auxiliary Girls State program operates through a nonpartisan curriculum where students assume the roles of government leaders, campaigning as “Federalists” and “Nationalists” to become mayors and county and state officials of their ALA Girls State. The girls also live in “cities” within the residence halls.

The first Girls State was conducted in 1938, and since 1948 has been a regular part of the Auxiliary’s better citizenship activity nationwide. In 1942, Alabama’s first Girls State was held at Camp Grandview Park with less than 70 girls in attendance.

Now, it has grown to approximately 350 delegates roaming the campus of Troy University.

Participants had a week packed full of hands-on learning opportunities by running for office, attending governmental meetings and legislative sessions and giving campaign speeches. They also had the chance to hear from many accomplished women, including Alabama Senator Katie Boyd Britt; Kay Marie Briddell, Montgomery, Ala. real estate agent and community leader; Air Force Maj. (Ret.) Heather “Lucky” Penny; Alice LaCour, Assistant US Attorney; Liz Huntley, attorney and author; US District Judge Anna Manasco; Charisse Stokes, President of Tidal IT Solutions; Dr. Farah Gaston; Madolyn Kirby; Caroleene Dobson; Lindsay Finch, Miss Alabama; and Starla Jones, Butler County Distinguished Young Women.

Toby Roth, Capitol Resources of Alabama, Young Boozer, Alabama State Treasurer, and Troy University Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr. also addressed the delegates during several general sessions. 

Governor Kay Ivey, a former Girls State Lieutenant Governor, spoke to the delegates Wednesday morning about patriotism and the responsibility we all have to be good citizens, but also about how Girls State will continually impact their lives.

“You’re becoming a part of a large network of people that, in reality, make the world seem a little smaller. No matter the direction you want to take in life, this week is already preparing you to get there,” she said. “Girls State is not just a week. It’s a state of mind, an attitude, a way of thinking that has stuck with me my entire life. Every day when I enter the Governor’s Office in the Capitol, I take with me the virtues that Girls State instilled in me.”

As a student at Auburn University in 1960s, there were few opportunities for female students to hold true positions of leadership, Ivey said. Instead of running for the women’s Student Government Association, she thought she could make a bigger difference running for office in the male-dominated “regular” SGA. She went on to hold the titles of Freshman Senator, Sophomore Senator, Secretary of the Student Body and was the first female Vice President.

“Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s about being the person to make a real difference. I knew I’d be able to do that if I chose to run against the boys for SGA,” she said. “Very often, I get asked what it’s like to be a female in a male dominated field, and my response is always the same: I don’t think about it.

“I firmly believe that whoever is the most qualified person should be the one to get the job, but as I like to say, sometimes the best man for a job is a woman.”

Elected Governor Sarah Wilson said at Thursday’s Inaugural Dinner that she was proud of the delegation for how far they’d all come since arriving Sunday and that she was grateful for their love and support in electing her as governor.

Girls State Governor Sarah Wilson after taking her Oath of Office.
Girls State Governor Sarah Wilson was presented with flowers and a commemorative plate after taking her Oath of Office.

“When I first arrived, I questioned if I had what it took to represent this large group of ladies, who were just as driven as I was. Then I got to meet my city, the City of Vulcan, the smallest but mightiest city. Their love and support gave me the confidence I needed,” she said. “When I left home, I told my mom, ‘I’m either going to go big or I’m not going at all.’ My city gave me the courage to go big and believe I could be governor.

“This is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Whatever situation you find yourself in, stay true to who you are. Continue to be dreamers, believers, and continue to live bigger than you are right now. We are all destined for greatness.”

Each of the cities are guided and encouraged by counselors throughout the week. Victoria Cirilli, Field Marketing Specialist II for TROY Dining Services/Sodexo and a former Girls State delegate, said being a counselor is always a highlight of her year.

“It’s been an honor working with Troy University to host this amazing group of women as they learn the process of local government in an interactive way,” she said. “Being able to guide young women as they navigate new territory, expand their education and test their abilities to debate, use higher order thinking skills and reasoning is so valuable, and it humbles me to able to witness their growth in just one week.”

After a trip to Montgomery Friday to see the Governor’s mansion and tour the Capitol Building, closing ceremonies were held featuring a speech from each city mayor.

“When I first arrived at Troy University, I was as nervous as a squirrel crossing a busy street; however, over the past five days every single girl standing on this stage has made a tremendous impact on me,” said St. Stephens Mayor Kennedi Ezell. “These memories will last a lifetime. I’m proud of us for listening without judgement, helping without entitlement, understanding without pretention and loving each other without conditions. It’s been an amazing journey watching you all chase your dreams and reach for the stars. This is only the beginning.”