Montclair High School senior Serena Lee is one of two New Jersey students selected to represent the state during the 61st annual United States Senate Youth Program. 

Lee is the first student from Montclair High School to ever be selected for the program, she said. 

Lee was nominated for the program by Jeffrey Freeman, Montclair High School principal, and Reginald Clark, one of the high school’s vice principals. Each high school can nominate one student for the program, and a selection committee at the state Department of Education selects the winners.

With the encouragement of her parents, Lee applied.

“It's a pretty highly selective program,” Lee said. “So I wasn't sure if I would be selected.”

But she was selected, alongside Branchburg student Anjali Krishnamurti, and in March the two seniors will travel to Washington to participate in the program.. 

Created in 1962 and funded by The Hearst Foundations, the United States Senate Youth Program brings two students from each state, Washington, D.C., and the Department of Defense Education Activity to the district for an intensive weeklong study of the federal government and the people who lead it. During the week, the students meet with the president, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Senate co-chairs, other Senate leaders and the Senate parliamentarian and historian; officials from the Departments of State and Defense and other executive agencies; a foreign ambassador to the United States; and senior members of the media, according to the program website.

Each delegate also receives a $10,000 college scholarship for undergraduate study.

“The overall mission of the program is to help instill within each class of USSYP student delegates more profound knowledge of the American political process and a lifelong commitment to public service,” a United States Senate Youth Program press release says.

Those selected for the program are the top student leaders in their state, the release says.

And Lee, who has spent nearly all her life in Montclair, definitely fits the bill. Deeply involved in the Montclair High School community, Lee has been a part of and led several clubs over the past four years.

Lee currently serves as president or co-president of the Montclair High School Student Council, the Asian Student Union, DECA Club of Montclair High School, and Montclair Menstrual Club, of which she is also the founder. She is also team captain of the Montclair Robotics Team 555.

Leading the 70-student robotics team has been one of the most memorable experiences of Lee’s high school career, she said. The club has “been the most challenging and rewarding” part of her time at the high school. 

“Really being able to see how all the time and efforts that I put in and my peers have put in to make it such a successful group has been really rewarding,” Lee said.

She’s also looking to the future, doing what she can to ensure that the club, with the largest roster to date, continues to grow. 

“Sustainability is one of a leader’s most important roles,” Lee said. “Even after I leave, I want these groups to be able to continue to thrive and be successful.”

Beyond setting the groundwork for sustainability, a good leader is assertive, mindful, listens to others and works to make sure they’re creating inclusive spaces, Lee said.

“The groups that I enjoy working with the most are ones that really are community minded and they take in different perspectives,” she said.

Lee has held other leadership positions with those clubs prior to this school year, and also served as Montclair High School Key Club treasurer during the 2021-2022 school year. 

Beyond Montclair High School, Lee continues to lead in the larger Montclair community. She is a student representative for the Montclair Public Schools District Equity Team, the Montclair Civil Rights Commission and Make Us Visible NJ, an AAPI education advocacy coalition. She also serves as vice chairperson for the Montclair Public Library Teen Advisory Board. 

Lee also worked as a mentor with the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence’s PEEPs program from December 2020 to August 2022 and previously was a media and communication co-chair for AAPI Montclair,

“I’ve always been interested in a wide range of activities,” Lee said. “The groups I’m involved in, they’re communities, but they’re also an opportunity for me to contribute and meet new people and make a difference.”

The social justice-oriented groups Lee is involved with are often focused on creating access, something she tries to do as a leader, she says.

“I happen to have had a lot of great opportunities, so I really work to try to make sure other people have those same opportunities and to really create more access for people, especially underrepresented BIPOC women,” Lee said.

During her freshman, sophomore and junior years, Lee was awarded the Montclair High School Guidance Community Service Award. She also won the 2021 United Nations Association Community Service Award and has been a member of the National Honor Society during her junior and senior years. 

“In addition to outstanding leadership abilities and a strong commitment to volunteer work, the

student delegates rank academically in the top 1 percent of their states among high school juniors and seniors,” the press release says.

Lee says she is looking forward to Washington Week, learning from and connecting with political leaders, and representing Montclair and New Jersey. 

“I'm hoping to take some of that information, and the lessons and knowledge from them to bring it back to the work I do here, but also to carry it with me going forward,” Lee said. “And really learning about what ethical leadership looks like and how to create positive change, not just locally, but also on a more global scale.”

During her time in college, Lee hopes to study organizational behavior, international relations, AAPI studies and management.