Editor's note: Shonnetta Henry is the Boys & Girls Clubs of America's 2008-09 National Youth of the Year. She grew up in Denver, Colorado, attending the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver for five years. Henry is a student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
College freshman Shonnetta Henry, 19, says her vote gives her a chance to make a difference.
DENVER, Colorado (CNN) -- I'm 19 years old this year. That means, as for so many of my friends, this is the first year that I'm able to vote in a presidential election.
Being able to vote means that I am able to participate in changing the current state of America. It means that I am able to pressure candidates into paying attention to issues that are important to young people like me.
The opportunity to vote feels empowering. It's an opportunity to be involved in a system that controls so many aspects of my life.
When I was growing up, things weren't going right at all. I was raised in a home that didn't have a lot of the same things that many Americans take for granted. To say that money was short would be the most incredible understatement.
My mother had three children at a young age and worked hard to try to make a better life for us. But sometimes things were very tight, and the poverty of my early life is something I've been determined to overcome.
When I was a child, my father wasn't in the picture at all. He didn't take responsibility for our family. It fell to me to help raise my younger brother and two sisters.
At many points in my life, I felt like I'd never escape from the life I was in, that I'd never have the opportunity to be more, or to contribute to the world.
But there were people, like my grandmother and the staff at my Boys & Girls Club in Denver, who helped me find my purpose and taught me responsibility and how to be proud of my community. So now I'm devoting myself to helping being "that thing that went right" for other young people who need to be rescued.
I feel now that I've come to a point where I can break the cycle, not just for myself but for my brother and sisters as well. I'm working hard to make sure they have opportunities, too. But one of the things I've learned, and that I've tried to teach my siblings as well, is that you have to make things happen for yourself, to take control of your life as much as possible, and to try to make a difference in the world.
Voting is one important way that I can make my voice heard and feel like I'm making a difference and to feel like I'm part of the process.
There are a lot of issues that we need to be concerned about, from the economy to terrorism to global warming. But to ensure a positive future for every child and shape a nation empowered by great citizens, it's vital that we focus on a few key areas: academic success, good character and citizenship.
Education is probably the most important issue for young people. As a college freshman, I'm expecting to see tuition costs rise every year, and funding decreasing just as fast. For many young people, it's becoming increasingly difficult to pay for college.
I'm really worried about how many teens aren't even graduating from high school. In 2006, more than 1 million teenagers didn't graduate from high school in the U.S. That's 30 percent of the class of 2006. The number increases to almost 50 percent among some minorities.
While students are doing better in elementary and middle school, the high school dropout rate for minority youth is too high. Young people know that graduating is vital to their future success. Most of them had passing grades when they dropped out of school. But they are still dropping out at a rate that educators deem a crisis -- one that will dramatically affect the future of America's prosperity in the global arena.
Young people think education is the most important issue facing the country, according to a survey of U.S. teens released by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America last week. It's interesting that the survey found most teens would not want the nation's highest office.
Sixty-seven percent said they would not want to be president of the United States -- an increase from the same survey conducted before the 2004 election when 57 percent of teens said they didn't want to be president.
The survey also found:
• Forty-three percent say good character and strong ethics are the most important attributes of the U.S. president.
• Other important attributes: the ability to inspire people (22 percent), education (21 percent), successful track record in government (10 percent) and experience in foreign policy (5 percent).
• Thirty-two percent say making sure our young people are well-educated is the most important issue facing the U.S.
Although we face many challenges in America where tough decisions will have to be made, I'm hopeful and glad finally to have the opportunity to have my voice heard and be part of the solution.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shonnetta Henry.
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