Vanessa Sandoval

Vanessa Sandoval

What’s your idea of perfect presidential material? A proven leader, from a large state like Texas, perhaps? Or maybe a candidate who’s tall, athletic and charismatic? How about a former actor?

The 2003-04 president of SkillsUSA’s high school division meets all those qualifications. But unfortunately, due to a document called the Constitution, it’ll be 18 years before this criminal justice student is old enough for the Oval Office.

Vanessa Sandoval, of Brownsville, Texas, has been involved in SkillsUSA for more than three years. She enjoys acting and singing, volleyball and track, and being a senior class officer, National Honor Society member and assistant editor of the James Pace High School yearbook.

“I love being involved. It’s my nature,” she says. “I think I’ve been able to balance academics with extracurricular activities because of managing my time well.”

Despite all this and more, Sandoval maintains that she’s “a regular high school senior. I have homework for my AP classes, I have to do chores at home, and like any other kid, I like to have fun hanging out with my friends.”

But how does Sandoval do it all? “My dad always made sure I wasn’t spreading myself too thin, and both my mom and dad have been so supportive in all my endeavors. I’ve found that something as simple as keeping a daily planner is essential when keeping track of a busy schedule.”

Her father is a lawyer, and her mother, who’s also her SkillsUSA advisor, is a former police officer.

“I grew up around law enforcement,” the student says. “When I was little I would play ‘cops and robbers’ with my cousins, so studying criminal justice just seemed like it was the right thing for me.” As far as her mother being her teacher, “at first it felt really awkward, but thanks to her being my advisor, I’ve been able to have a stronger relationship with her.”

Sandoval got an early taste of campaigning at a student forum in California, the Lorenzo de Zavala Hispanic Institute. Elected lieutenant governor, she became the institute’s highest-ranking female and was also named outstanding legislator.

“I had my own chambers, and I was in charge of the senate, and because of that I learned more about our political system and how bills are passed,” she explains.

Decisions, decisions …

nd then there’s the decision about a major. Sandoval is interested in law, political science and broadcasting. “I am not really sure what I want to do for the rest of my life, but if I can integrate all three areas, then that would be great,” she says.

Being a young leader, she’s inevitably asked about the U.S. presidential campaign. “My opinion is that each presidential candidate should worry about how they can gain America’s trust without bad-mouthing the other candidate. Both candidates should spend more time and money on campaigns that demonstrate their ideas, goals and visions for future America, but I guess we don’t always get what we want.” As a result, her age group often tunes out politics, she adds.

“Instead of hearing on the news that a candidate could have been a better teen-ager, I want to hear about their actions now. Everyone has a past, but I would venture to say that if they are willing to run for president of the United States of America, then they have matured and learned from their mistakes. No one is perfect; that’s understandable. However, I want a president that I can relate to. I want a leader who will represent me well.”

Pretty insightful for a self-described “regular kid.” After becoming a SkillsUSA national officer, she says her “life changed in that I look at situations differently. My close friends, my teachers and I noticed that I have definitely matured more.

“I can still be the goofy dork that I was my freshman year, but I’ve learned that when you work hard you can play hard. There is a certain time and place for everything. SkillsUSA has taught me to be a professional in the business and industry world, but I learned to keep the kid inside of me alive.

“After all, I am only 17.”

Making a case at the Capital

Vanessa Sandoval participated with other officers from career and technical student organizations in a webcast, “Building Academic, Technical and Leadership Skills: Lessons Learned From Career and Technical Student Organizations.” The Washington, D.C., discussion was moderated by Susan Sclafani, U.S. assistant secretary for vocational and adult education.

Following are some of the responses Sandoval gave to the assistant secretary’s questions.

How has your organization worked to ensure that course work, as well as the co-curricular activities that you’re working with, provides students with [employability] skills?

Sandoval: Through SkillsUSA, we have both skills and leadership competitions. … These competitions are allowing students to build confidence and, at the same time, learn what they have to do when they graduate from high school and college.

For example, we have the Job Interview competition. …You’re learning how to create a résumé that’s correctly written. You have to go through the interview process, and you’re working on communication skills. … These students, whether they win or not, they’re learning the skills needed to become successful.

Vanessa Sandoval webcast

Have experiences with businesses and corporations broadened your understanding of what the career entails and how to prepare for it?

Sandoval: We have the job shadowing program. … Some of my friends are working at the courthouse after school, or they’re working with the police department in the investigation area, and they’re actually seeing what these people are doing. And through that, they’re telling themselves, “OK, this is what I really want to do with the rest of my life.” Or they find out, “No, this isn’t for me, I need to try something else.”

Do any organizations offer curriculum materials that specifically teach employability skills?

Sandoval: SkillsUSA has a Professional Development Program … with various levels for students to go through. You start off with Level 1, and you have your basic skills on what to do with a job application. … In different levels, you learn how to conduct a business meeting. It’s a process that a student can go through from their freshman year and, at the end, become an individual that is ready to go out into the professional world and succeed.

In the fields that you’re studying, do you also see math and science?

Sandoval: In the classes we’ve taken in crime scene investigation, when you have a homicide victim and there are blood splatters, you have to use mathematical equations and numbers to figure out where was this person hit from. If the blood splatter is on the ceiling, obviously it was from a different direction. If there’s a wreck you have to figure out, well, how fast was this car going for it to hit and damage such an area?

Another field is architectural drafting. A teacher told me one of their students had been having trouble with their math classes. However, when she got into the drafting courses and was looking at the blueprints and figuring out the floor plans, she could understand that Pythagorean theorem that she didn’t quite get. She understood how it worked, what it was used for, and she could then apply it when she went back into the classroom.

So math and science, as well as literature and language, happen in our career and technology classes where we can apply them out into the real world. And once we understand them, because some people work better with hands-on learning, then we can go back into the classroom, and when we read it in a textbook, it’s not just words. We’re picturing it as if we were doing it out on the field.

What’s the most important change your organization could make to maximize its potential for enabling young people to develop appropriate career opportunities?

Sandoval: All of the current technology student organizations need to be marketed more. We need the networking to show the rest of the world that so many students are involved and that there’s so many more that could be involved. I would love to see on the side of a billboard, “SkillsUSA: Champions at Work, come join,” instead of seeing beer advertisements as we’re driving down the highway. …

We go to the movie theater, and there’s so many trailers and advertisements for movies, and I don’t understand why one of them can’t have SkillsUSA. If people get there early, they might as well look at something that’s going to help them. …

Little things that make the bigger difference would help all the student organizations, and that’s something that we need our congressmen to help us with. We need the president to realize that we’re here. We need local business people. Anyone who can help is helping the future of America, and I think that’s really important. And it can be done.