Mikayla Kelz is 16 and won’t be eligible to vote in the presidential election next November. But on Feb. 1, she was in Iowa reporting on the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus.
"I was speechless," Mikayla said of the opportunity to cover a Ted Cruz rally -- her first stop after touching down in the Hawkeye State.
Mikayla, a high school junior, is one of 12 teens selected to cover six major presidential election events this year in a new program launched by Envision, a nonpartisan organization that introduces kids to politics and other real world experiences. In the “Chase the Race” program, teens are treated like professional journalists with a TV crew and the works. The student reporters are there to get answers on behalf of their generation -- and experience a pivotal moment in political history outside their history classes.
Mikayla headed to Iowa with less than 48 hours to cover candidates of both parties before voters went to the caucuses. After that, she headed back to Wisconsin, hanging with friends at her locker in between classes.
In Iowa, she landed an interview with then-GOP candidate Carly Fiorina and scored a selfie with the Republican front-runner himself, Donald Trump.
“I think when you’re dealing with politics, it doesn't matter what your age is. It just matters if you’re knowledgeable and how interested you are,” Mikayla said. “But I knew I had to step up.”
Aside from its youth reporters on the trail, Envision is collaborating with Discovery Education to produce a curriculum for classrooms across the country. The aim: to encourage young people to be curious about and involved in the political process through civic engagement – regardless of whether they can vote.
“We want to amplify the youth voice,” Envision’s chief academic officer Andrew Potter told MSNBC. “We want to know what our youth of America is thinking about during the most important event this nation is going through.”
Students who applied for Chase the Race were asked to submit a video explaining why they should be selected. After narrowing down the list to 22 finalists, the videos were shared on social media and voted on to assist in determining the winners. Then, it was just a matter of getting all the pieces in order for the first big event in Iowa.
“They’re not professional journalists, but we give them a sense of what they’re going to see and how to ask the right questions,” Potter said.
Charles Graham, another teen reporter and a senior in high school fascinated by politics, was also assigned to Iowa. He described the experience as surreal.
“When you’re watching these candidates on TV it’s less personal, you don’t really feel like you know them,” Charles told MSNBC. “But when you’re up close you get a better sense of what they’re about. You see how politicians struggle with being a person.”
At one point, Charles found himself in a small room with Fiorina and only a handful of other people. “She smiled when she came in,” he recalled. “That was the first time I’d ever seen her smile.”
Charles found then-Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley to be “pretty relatable and optimistic” during a one-one-one interview he scored with the former Maryland governor.
But, as Charles noted, “The numbers in Iowa were showing otherwise.”
Charles also talked to Ben Carson – scrambling to grab an interview with the Republican candidate as he walked by unexpectedly.
“We had to act quickly, we didn’t have enough time to be in awe,” Charles said. He moved toward Carson and asked the candidate what he thought the biggest issues are affecting the youth.
The remaining 10 students in the program have been divided into pairs, and each pair will be sent to cover one of the major political events remaining this year -- Super Tuesday, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and upcoming GOP and Dem debates. In addition to interviewing candidates, local politicians and voters, the youth reporters are featured on a live stream. During the presidential inauguration in January 2017, the whole group will be together, along with potentially 5,000 other students with the help of Envision, watching from the nation’s capital.
MSNBC spoke to roughly half of the “Chase the Race” reporters who are in high schools across the country, from Connecticut to California. All said the election is a hot topic at school -- and not just in the classroom.
“Around the lunch table we’ll talk about the big issues like national debt, or Ted Cruz’s views on immigration compared to Marco Rubio’s, or the chance of a socialist president,” 15-year-old Zachary Crilley told MSNBC. “I think kids are starting to get excited about that, that they can actually make a change.”
Zachary will be in Virginia on March 1 for Super Tuesday, one of several states holding contests that day. Growing up three blocks from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. -- he shares a backyard with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s chief-of-staff and is in school with Sen. Rand Paul’s son -- the high school sophomore has been immersed in politics.
But as much as he cares about what’s going on in the news, Zachary says it’s not a two-way street, and that younger people are being ignored.
“Most people think that teenagers are shortsighted and not really thinking about the future,” Zachary said. “But I believe a lot of them are actually very forward thinking.”
The country’s youngest voters have already shown interest in the presidential race. According to a recent USA Today/Rock the Vote poll, 60 percent of millennials – people born between 1980 and 2000 -- said they are likely to vote in the November elections, with 57 percent saying they have given either “a lot of thought” or “much thought” to the 2016 election.
Abigail Kelly, a junior at Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Connecticut, and another student reporter also covering Super Tuesday, pointed to social media as the driver of political information among friends.
“Maybe it’s because I go to a Catholic school, but I noticed that social issues are more present than any of the other issues,” Abigail said. “It’s not like I hear about the Affordable Care Act on Twitter.”
Zachary said the colorful personalities in the race have influenced the social buzz in his circles. “I mean, let’s face it, Donald Trump is kind of an entertainer -- so it’s really entertaining to watch him on stage doing his thing,” he said.
On Super Tuesday, Zachary will get a front-row ticket to the show. “It’ll be really fun to be in the middle of it instead of sitting at home texting my friends about it,” he said.
Zachary hopes to interview GOP candidate Marco Rubio. “I feel like he’s more down to earth,” Zachary said, adding he’d also like to interview Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I want to know how he plans to implement the free college for all plan,” he said.
Sanders has remained a threat to front-runner Hillary Clinton largely because of his popularity among younger voters. Sanders defeated Clinton by 22 points in the New Hampshire primary, and NBC News exit poll data found that he had garnered 83 percent of voters under the age of 30.
Mikayla, for her part, finds Sanders’ plans unrealistic.
“All I hear about from my friends is Bernie Sanders this, Bernie Sanders that,” Mikayla said. “He’s offering free college, how does that not sound amazing? But where is he getting the money -- is everything going to work out?”
Zachary, like Mikayla, said many in his school are talking about Sanders’ promises. But he said the interest isn’t because Sanders is offering “handouts.” Rather, Zachary said, it’s “about young people wanting change.”
For Fiona Ross, a 15-year-old freshman in Sacramento, California, women’s issues will be on the top of her list when she covers the Republican debate on Feb. 25.
“If I had 30 seconds to talk to Trump, I would ask him if he would have women in his administration if he is elected president,” Fiona told MSNBC.
As for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, the only woman running for president since Fiorina dropped out this month, Fiona isn’t sold. “I feel that Hillary Clinton is a great candidate, but I’m not sure if she’s the first female president that Americans need.”
Mikayla questions Clinton’s honesty, too. “You know she has a lot of experience, but can I trust her?"
Many of these youth reporters see a future in political journalism or potentially running for office themselves.
“We want more youth to walk away with the notion that ‘This is my country, I have a chance to get involved,’” Envision’s Potter said. “We want them to say, ‘Maybe I can’t vote, I can work the campaign back home. I can have a powerful impact.’”
For Charles, who’s heading off to college next fall and is eligible to vote this year, being part of the process falls right in line with his ambitions.
“I know that I’m able to make a difference at a young age -- and maybe not just a small difference, but a large impact on my state and country,” he said.
Even the idea of running for president one day isn’t off his radar.
“Thirty-five seems like an eternity away,” Charles said, referring to the age requirement to be president of the United States. “I’m only 17 right now.”