Sandra Ochoa Warden
Campaign Simulation Winner, 2021 High School Program
Come for Training, Stay for Community: Lessons from Running Start’s 2021 High School Program
Just before the start of the first day of the Running Start High School Program, my finger hovered over a Zoom button. I needed to fill up my glass of water, change my top — anything to give me an extra minute before facing a new group of incredibly qualified people.
Eventually I forced my finger onto my keyboard and joined the Zoom, but my fear didn’t go away. As Running Start staff introduced themselves, I considered just keeping my mouth shut for the next four weeks.
Then we started talking to each other in breakout rooms and group activities. I took small steps of bravery: a Slack message to compliment someone with a great suit jacket, a question to the speaker. Every interaction, every risk, was met with overwhelming support. It was these connections that made the High School Program a once-in-a-lifetime experience and helped me feel belonging among a group of amazing people.
On the last day of the program, I was elected Class Representative by my peers. I had the chance to speak to Sandra Ochoa Warden, the candidate whose team won the overall campaign simulation that every student in the program participated in. Talking to Sandra reminded me that the friendly, supportive atmosphere at Running Start is really what makes this program possible, even for people like Sandra and myself who were scared at first to speak up.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you apply for the High School Program? Do you feel like you got what you wanted out of it?
Sandra: I originally applied because I got an ad for the program. I just clicked on it and saw that it was a training specifically dedicated to high school girls who want to go into politics, which I feel is a really specific demographic that isn’t really focused on … I was like, “This is cool!” I applied just wanting to learn any valuable information from women who worked in politics. I definitely got what I wanted out of it, I learned so much. Also, just the great community of people … I wasn’t really expecting it, but I also got a lot out of it.
Ellie: Like a lot of people, I think I came across the program by complete and utter coincidence. I honestly applied because I thought it would be an interesting experience to learn about things that I don’t have a lot of knowledge on. I also thought being surrounded by so many amazing women and forming those connections would be a way to push myself, and I wanted that challenge. I definitely got what I wanted out of the program, and in fact I’d say I got more. I couldn’t have anticipated the amount of mentors and trainers I could keep in contact with that I just met through different programs sessions and conversations. That really helped me develop as a person, even though the program was only 4 weeks long.
Students’ roles in the program’s campaign simulation were completely randomized. Sandra, what was it like to be the candidate in your campaign? Was there anything unexpected that you got out of it? Ellie, how was your experience being field director on your campaign? Is there anything you would have changed about your outreach efforts and work on your campaign simulation deliverables?
Sandra: I think the main thing that I felt throughout it was that it was just really exciting. I obviously want to work in politics, so I got to write a speech for myself with things that I care about and make a campaign ad. It felt kind of real at times and it was a really cool moment to be actually running for something.
Ellie: To be frank, when I first came into the program and was told I was field director, I didn’t know what that was. Going in blind, I was kind of trying to figure it out as we went along. As we introduced ourselves, I also felt grossly under qualified. So, it was a rocky start, but I think I got support really quickly because I was willing to say, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” In terms of anything I would change, I would increase that collaboration even more. I was kind of scared to do that at the beginning, kind of feeling doubtful that because I didn’t know what I was doing, I shouldn’t try it. I would say that when I changed that mindset halfway through the campaign and the program, it reaped really good results.
In the process of trying new things in the program, did you learn anything about yourself that you didn’t know before?
Sandra: That I would deal with my anxiety and do what I had to do. I feel like before… I would have asked for a different position in the campaign or something. But I was like, “No, I got placed here, so I’m just going to try my best.” I didn’t realize realise how able I am to overcome anxiety if I am just rational with myself and think about how the worst that can happen really isn’t a bad thing.
If you were to give yourself a message before going into the program what would it be?
Sandra: I would probably tell myself to just be open to whatever activities you may be doing. To not write it off as soon as it starts like “I don’t want to talk” or “I don’t want to turn my camera on,” because the people in the program are so nice and supportive that you will be okay.