Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2022 National League of Cities’ City Congressional Conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
For many high school students across the country, the pandemic resulted in Zoom classes, missed milestones and an increase in mental health concerns. As a member of the Austin Youth Council—as well as NLC’s Council on Youth, Education and Families— Ann Vadakkan advocates not just for youth empowerment, but also for youth mental wellness, raising awareness to help reduce any stigma.
Chris Riback: Ann, thanks so much for coming to the studio. It’s great to have you here.
Ann Vadakkan: Thank you for having me.
Chris Riback: So tell me about you. What year are you in school and what are some of your interests?
Ann Vadakkan: So I’m currently a sophomore at Neil High School. I do a lot of dance outside of school, Indian classical dance. I’ve been doing it for around 13 years. That’s been a huge part of my life. I also do a lot of art, like painting, drawing, anything like that. I’m also a big baker, so pretty much all over the place, but it’s been a lot of fun.
Chris Riback: Well, excellent. We would all love to take advantage of the baking, so feel free to bring samples by the studio at any time.
Ann Vadakkan: Of course.
Chris Riback: Tell me about the policy and government and youth advocacy work that you do. What motivates you?
Ann Vadakkan: So I’m currently part of the Austin Youth Council, and I was recently appointed to be on the YEF Council, but as a part of the Austin Youth Council, it really advocates for youth empowerment, just getting a bunch of different people, a bunch of diverse cultures, races, pretty much anything that falls along those lines just to come together and be civically engaged. This includes volunteering or talking to council members about issues that we face as youth, which is a huge part of the Austin Youth Council. So as a part of the YEF Council, we plan these conferences and workshops for the youth delegates, which is a really amazing opportunity and I’m super excited to be working on it.
Chris Riback: What are some of the issues when you talk to in Austin and to the council there, what are some of the issues that are on youth’s minds that you help inform them about?
Ann Vadakkan: So I definitely think mental health is one of the biggest issues that the youth face, especially. All over the nation, not just in Austin. So ways to address that that we’ve done is having campaigns on social media, through Instagram and posting about social media awareness, advocating for just to get rid of the stigma that surrounds mental illness in all of our public high schools. That’s been a huge part. Homelessness, that’s also been a huge growing issue in Austin, specifically.
Chris Riback: It’s a big Austin issue, yes.
Ann Vadakkan: Yes, for sure. And ways that we’ve tried to address that is creating care packages and trying to implement care packages for the homeless population, because we have different committees and different committees focus on different ideas. So the homelessness committee specifically focuses creating care packages.
Chris Riback: Youth mental health, youth mental wellness. Do you see the challenges with your peers, with your friends? What are kids going through?
Ann Vadakkan: For sure. There’s a study one in every three students in high school has basically some sort of mental health issue. This goes along with a lot lack of motivation that I’ve seen in my peers, for sure. Students that were once super motivated to get up every day, do the work, be top of their class is no longer like that. They’ve just sort of fallen behind due to the pandemic and just the lack of socialization that came with that. I definitely think that a lot of my classmates do suffer from mental illnesses and that should be addressed.
Chris Riback: It’s got to be hard to see.
Ann Vadakkan: Yes, for sure. Just seeing the downfall and the gradual decline of my peers, just being really studious top of the class to all of a sudden not wanting to do any assignments at all is heartbreaking.
Chris Riback: So both in Austin and with the YEF, Youth Education and Families Council, you work with a lot of adults.
Ann Vadakkan: Yes.
Chris Riback: What do the adults not understand?
Ann Vadakkan: I think that something that the adults should understand is the fact that we do have a voice and that is pretty generic, but there’s a lot of people who just kind of overlook what the youth have to say. Just as a part of this conference, we were speaking to some of the other youth delegates from across the nation and they were addressing how there weren’t as many youth delegate workshops as they would’ve liked, which is kind of counterintuitive to the message that the NLC is trying to send, which was just a huge, just shocker. So I think that’s definitely one.
Chris Riback: Do you connect, we’re talking about education, you are raising a whole series of issues, including mental health. Do you see the connections between youth education, maybe even younger childhood education, if you can think back to elementary school or even before, and ensuring mental health wellness with teenagers?
Ann Vadakkan: I think that the education system has definitely began to start implementing different programs, especially in high school to address these issues. But definitely in elementary and middle school, I did not see as many. I didn’t even know that like mental and this was something that a lot of people were dealing with just because that wasn’t addressed at all. And I know that there are students who have faced trauma in elementary and middle school, but it’s just not addressed at all. I was just in a session with the mayor’s education task force and they were addressing how they’ve implemented more counselors into school, into high schools. And I’ve seen that in my high school as well, but definitely in the younger ages, like elementary and middle school, I don’t see that as often.
Chris Riback: And what’s next for you?
Ann Vadakkan: So I’m planning to going into business just really broad, but maybe specializing in marketing. I love interacting with people. I think that’s something that I would excel in. I definitely want to stay civically engaged in some way. Maybe having a position at the NLC, just being exposed to the NLC in general was an incredible experience. Seeing all the leaders just coming together and seeing how they interact with people too. That’s just been an inspiring experience. And I definitely think I want to pursue something either in the government side of things or the business side of things.
Chris Riback: Yes. We look forward to either way, maybe both and.
Ann Vadakkan: Yes, that’s for sure.
Chris Riback: But we look forward to it. Ann, thank you for stopping by the studio.
Ann Vadakkan: Yes. Thank you so much for having me.