Jahnavi Rao is a recent graduate from Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. But she’s not your average student. In addition to being a productive member of the National Honor Society (NHS) and being accepted into Harvard University, Rao formed a nonpartisan, high school-run organization called 2018 New Voters. New Voters has now been registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and a partnership has been formed with Democracy Matters—a collegiate-level, nonpartisan voter-rights organization devoted to closing the voting gap and encouraging 18-year-olds across the country to vote.

Advise: You were too young to vote in the 2016 election. Was there a certain trigger point or “a-ha!” moment that made you realize, “I need to do something now to make sure my voice is heard”?

Rao: I was never interested in politics, but now I could not imagine pursuing anything else. When I was younger, I wanted to be a doctor or mermaid or FBI agent (or all three). As I entered the years where you realize you cannot just become a princess, I thought I’d be an environmentalist or something in the nonprofit sector where I could affect the causes I really cared about. But, like a lot of people in my generation, the 2016 election was a pivotal moment. In the days following the election, I saw my peers on both sides of the spectrum posting on Facebook and ranting in the cafeteria about their helplessness to affect their future. That feeling of helplessness resonated with me, and I knew that there had to be a way for students under 18 to get involved and have a real effect on the decisions being made about their future. That’s where New Voters grew from at the end of my junior year and the spring of 2017: when I could not register myself, but could motivate others to register and help my generation’s voice be heard. It is really incredible giving people the opportunity to have a true voice in politics, regardless of whether the laws of democracy say they can or cannot.

Advise: Did your involvement in NHS and the services you performed with that organization contribute to your decision to start 2018 New Voters?

Rao: Definitely. NHS fosters an environment where the members feel the initiative to take up new projects and are comfortable leading a group of their peers. Through cultivating our communication and leadership skills, NHS also empowered me and the other students leading New Voters to have remarkably successful registration efforts.

Advise: In light of recent events, namely the tragedy in Parkland, there seems to be a spotlight on students who are stepping up and raising their voices on local and even national levels. Do you feel Generation Z is more politically involved than previous generations? Why do you feel this is happening now, as opposed to a few years ago?

Rao: Through past conversations with students at registration drives, a common thread among those showing hesitation was a general mistrust in the democratic process and the idea that our interests are not reflected in politicians’ behaviors, so there is no point even registering. Recently, I think the message has become increasingly clear to that sector of the youth that if we do vote, we can single-handedly shape and put out policy we want.

Additionally, social media and news outlets have never been so saturated with politics as they are today. Whether it be a comedy show or famous actors advocating for causes, students have seen more and more people getting involved in politics. Generation Z has also grown to see an increasing number of young, brave trailblazers, like Malala Yousafzai, creating substantial change. It has been growing for a while, but this political exposure has culminated in youth across the country seeing people successfully advocating and stepping up to the plate themselves.

Advise: What have you found is the greatest motivator to get young people to register to vote?

Rao: As millennials and Generation Z are now the largest generation (having overtaken baby boomers in the workforce), we can shift the tide of any election up and down the ballot with this unprecedented potential political influence. This encourages students to be a part of this change as we recognize that we have strength in numbers. We also try to appeal to people’s interests when motivating students to vote. While I recognize that not everyone particularly cares about government, everyone cares about something. We elaborate on that by saying whatever you care about, from the environment to your school curriculum and standardized tests, everything is integrally affected by politics, and the most effective way to influence the things you care about is to vote.

Advise: Why do you think student council and the Honor Societies are great outlets to assert student leadership?

Rao: Within student councils and Honor Societies across the country are the most motivated and capable students at those schools, and those students are perfect for running highly successful registration drives with their classmates. Running a drive relies on students with strong leadership and communication skills and passion for civic engagement itself. From what I have seen of my own NHS chapter, as well as others, all these qualities are exemplified in NHS members.

Advise: During your middle and high school years, was there a particular teacher or adviser who inspired or influenced you most directly? 

Rao: There have been so many teachers who helped me grow as a leader through school, and I couldn’t begin to name them all if I tried. However, a couple stand out in regard to politics. My 11th grade AP government teacher, Mr. Anderson, was fundamental in fostering my interest in politics, as I never even considered it before that. Additionally, without his active attention to presenting arguments from both sides of the spectrum when discussing issues, I would not be as dedicated to the nonpartisan registration of students as I am today.

My teacher advisers for the New Voters organization at my school, Ms. Buckley and Mrs. Ciamacca, are two of the most inspiring women I know, and I am so lucky that I got the chance to learn from both of them in school. Every step of the way for New Voters, from our first drive to introducing us to a news reporter from the biggest newspaper in Philadelphia, the organization and I would not have grown half as much without them. I am so lucky to still be in touch with them as I continue to move beyond high school, and I am so excited to see my teachers help grow the next leaders of the world!

Advise: Why is leadership such an important quality to instill in today’s students?

Rao: Now more than ever, in such an expansive and globally connected world, initiative and the ability to step up to the plate are critical. There are so many causes in the world just waiting for a strong, young leader to take up their mantle, and I am very hopeful for the years to come as I see more of my generation eagerly reaching and raising up these causes, and thus leading us into a better future.

Advise: You now attend Harvard and intend to major in U.S. government and minor in environmental policy and science. How will you continue your leadership journey during your collegiate years? What about your post-collegiate years?

Rao: The other leaders of New Voters and I are fully committed to registering high school students, and we are constantly on calls and working to improve and expand New Voters. We are successfully bringing on new volunteers and, by expanding our scope, are able to have a greater impact on students across the country. Through this expanded role, I hope to continue developing my leadership skills by working with more students within New Voters, as well as by partnering with more national organizations, such as the collegiate-level organization Democracy Matters.

If you wish to support New Voters, please visit https://risefundraiser.com/campaign/new-voters.