University High School senior Diego Salazar traveled to New York City for a Generation Citizen Democracy Education Youth Summit in August, and he is using the lessons he learned to set an example for his peers that young people can also have a voice and be front and center in the democracy education field.

Salazar attended the New York City-based summit in the beginning of August with 26 other students, ages 14 to 18, from 12 different states, according to the summit’s website. He attended another summit in Washington, D.C., in March, he said.

The trip was his first time in New York, he said. During the day, Salazar was exposed to the college atmosphere at Wagner College, where the summit was held, and attended discussion and brainstorming sessions focused on topics such as increasing youth political participation, tactics to elevate political engagement and ways to respectfully disagree with peers. At night, he participated in social events, including a visit to Times Square and a Broadway musical.

“Many youth, they’re not politically active. They see it. They know it, but it’s probably because their parents aren’t,” Salazar said. “We can change that, and that’s what it was all about in New York City. There’s a lot of change that needs to happen, and not a lot of people think they can have any say-so in that. I’ve heard over time that, ‘My one vote doesn’t mean anything.’ It does.”

Shy going into high school, Salazar first found his voice during a career day when he learned about how community outreach could decrease violence in the world. With the desire to find a way to change society for the better, he joined mock trial for each year of high school, student court, practicum and anything else that interested him, he said. If he’s not going between classes or the cafeteria, he is in the classroom he calls his second home.

Criminal justice teacher Lori Palladino has seen Salazar’s growth firsthand, and the August summit helped Salazar come back to school with a new level of maturity, she said. He has taken on more roles in the classroom, is doing more things and is using his voice to be more outspoken as a leader among his peers, Palladino said. The event has directed him more down the career path he should be on, Palladino said.

“When I make it one day, I want to be able to say it all started in this courtroom,” Salazar said. “At first, I thought about being a lawyer, and I could do that, but I don’t want to stop there. I want to get a government job, and I know when I was in D.C., they offered me an internship with the U.S. Department of State. I’m striving to be a diplomat, because I want to get my major in international studies to see how America is interfering with people and how they’re interfering with us, what changes we can make for the better instead of for the worst.”

With his goal in mind, Salazar’s efforts to change the world starts with using the rest of the year to talk to and motivate students who come up after him. He gives advice on what to look out for, how to succeed and how to be prepared when facing a busy schedule, so that by the time he graduates, he knows there is someone else who can step up to be the example, he said.

“He has so much natural talent for all that. It’s amazing to see him argue a case in mock court. He’s never had any legal practice or mock trial practice, and he’ll just get up there. People who have gone through three years of law school can’t even do that, so it’s really been amazing. I think he enjoys it,” Palladino said. “I’ve had a lot of students go to law school, and I’ve had a lot of students go the criminal justice pathway, but for him to go so globally like that would be amazing, and he would do well at it, and he will make a difference.”

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