The contest rules are specific. Rule number 3 states:
“The short story should be no more than 900 words in length (including articles of speech); 800 to 900 words will make your paper competitive.”
One of the last things a high school student wants to do is write a short story. It takes more effort than a multiple-choice exam, and the odds of doing it correctly are lower than that of a true/false quiz.
This paper, however, isn’t a required test. It’s completely voluntary and part of a competition sponsored by Tennessee’s electric cooperatives. It requires some thought and creativity, but the payoff is incredible.
Winners earn spots on the weeklong Washington Youth Tour. It’s not a vacation. The trek is part history, part educational, but 100 percent fun (despite mornings that begin at 6 a.m.). The students are also eligible for a share of $16,000 in college scholarships and the opportunity to serve with a national youth leadership group. Along with your local cooperative, it is a combined effort of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association and our national association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Some 1,700 students from around the nation participate in the event, but Tennessee always sends the largest group. This year, 134 students from across the state were selected to attend along with 53 teachers and cooperative employees.
For the Washington Youth Tour to be as successful as it has been takes a commitment from local cooperative boards to fund the program and dedicated cooperative employees who spend a long, tiring week chaperoning those students.
With nearly $3 billion invested in our statewide utility infrastructure, cooperatives spend millions of dollars each year maintaining and improving the electric grid. That investment pays off immediately with improved service and other factors that keep operating costs to a minimum.
The thousands spent to send high school students to our nation’s capital pales in comparison. As an investment, it isn’t something that provides an immediate payoff. However, over the long term, nothing we do provides a lifetime of positive returns as does this investment in our future.
It is important to the students and their families. And it is important to the continuing prosperity of the communities we serve. These students are our leaders of tomorrow. It’s important that they learn about the political process, their cooperative and service to their communities. It’s important that they learn about themselves; these students gain confidence in their abilities and learn to be leaders.
This investment is ongoing. We’ve continued this program for more than 50 years. The results — years later — are tangible. Former Youth Tour participants turn up everywhere. We can’t keep track of all of them, but some are teachers, legislators or electric utility executives. You’ve likely heard of one former Youth Tour participant from Alabama — current Apple CEO Tim Cook.
To quote one of our students, “I never realized how life-changing a combination of 900 words could be until I won the short-story competition.”
Nine hundred words and a lifetime of memories: That’s an investment we will gladly continue for the next 50 years.