Eighteen-year-old Jesse-Manuel Begay always had big plans for his future.
In kindergarten, he wanted to be a lawyer or judge. A decade later, he started thinking about a career as a doctor. Now Begay, a senior at Cibola High School in Yuma, Arizona, has decided not to rule out a run for president of the United States.
“I am willing to take that step and be a leader,” he said. “Anything can happen.”
This comes after Begay, who is Navajo and Cocopah, accepted an invitation to join 1,200 other youth leaders from around the globe in Washington, D.C. last month for the High School Presidential Inaugural Conference. They spent several days touring historic sites and attending conferences and speeches, then congregated on the National Mall on January 21 when President Barack Obama took his second oath of office.
Although Begay voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the November election, he pushed through the crowds to a spot within a mile of the Capitol building.
“I have a lot of respect for Obama,” he said. “I may not have voted for him, but I have trust in my leaders. I believe trust and respect go a long way.”
Begay lives on the Cocopah Reservation, located 13 miles south of Yuma. The tribe helped fund Begay’s trip to Washington, where he was one of few Native students in the program, he said.
“I was there representing all the other Native Americans who weren’t there,” he said. “Representing my tribe, my family, even my state—that was a phenomenal experience.”
The prestigious conference included keynote speeches from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Wesley Clark, a four-star general and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander.
It was open exclusively to high school students who are alumni of the National Youth Scholars Program, the Congressional Youth Leadership Council, the National Youth Leadership Forum and the National Society of High School Scholars.
Begay was nominated to the National Youth Leadership Forum in 2010 and visited Washington, D.C., the summer before his sophomore year. That opportunity helped set his course as a young leader, said Amy Violette, a drama teacher at Cibola High School who nominated Begay in 2010.
“Jesse takes a lot of pride in his background and heritage,” Violette said. “He talks about it really openly. His ability to listen and to communicate clearly, to be a mature leader who leads by example is going to take him far.”
Begay left Washington with a greater understanding of leadership and friendships with students from as far away as Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.
His experiences also confirmed his desire to be a leader in his own community—and possibly beyond.
“I want to bring my education—whatever I end up doing—back to my tribe,” he said. “I’ve always had the urge to get involved, maybe politically. There’s talk about who will be the first Native American president. I’m not ruling that out.”