Tennessee’s Kathy Isaacson is the co-director of ALA Volunteer Girls State and a 1982 alumna of the program. She attended Indiana University on an Army ROTC scholarship and graduated in 1988 with a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Isaacson spent 12 years on active duty and was deployed twice — in 1990 to the Gulf War and to Bosnia in 1996. She served as a platoon leader and company commander, along with stints as a battalion staff officer.
She left the service in 2000 at the rank of major. Following her military career, she earned a master’s degree in history and worked for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
How did attending ALA Volunteer Girls State prepare you for your future?
ALA Volunteer Girls State was the first place where the notion that I could be anything, do anything was truly tangible. It was the first place where I met women who were doing all kinds of things. I didn’t leave ALA Girls State ready to join the military, but I left knowing it was possible.
What stands out to you most about your ALA Girls State experience?
That answer is twofold. First, I didn’t come from a family with a military tradition. ALA Volunteer Girls State gave me a renewed sense of patriotism and newfound appreciation for veterans. That foundation runs through the ALA Girls State experience, and I felt it clearly in 1982 — so much so that when I was looking at colleges, the idea of an ROTC scholarship was on my radar.
Second, I learned to pick myself up. I came to ALA Girls State from a small high school in west Tennessee. Like most delegates, I was a standout in high school. At ALA Girls State, I was with lots of other girls with that same experience — leaders in their schools, good students. I ran in the first election, and I was ready to make that acceptance speech. I was a bit surprised when I didn’t win. I was feeling a little overwhelmed and a bit sorry for myself when a counselor asked me a key question: “OK, so what will you do tomorrow? What’s next?” I learned quickly that it’s not the defeat that defines us; rather, it’s what we do next that matters.
Do you think your experience as an attendee differs from those today?
I don’t think we need to work hard to convince young women that they can do anything. They have grown up with that notion. What we do need to remind them is that strong women support each other. Competition is healthy, but we don’t need to tear others down to get ahead. When women work together, we can accomplish great things.
What is your favorite thing about the ALA Girls State program?
My favorite thing is to watch the transformation over the week, to compare the young women I see in the opening assembly to those young women I see at the closing assembly. They are strong and confident. They have made lifelong friends. They have joined a network of alumnae connected by a bond that will always be with them.
What do you like best about being involved in the program?
I am honored to be on the leadership team of ALA Volunteer Girls State. I loved working directly with delegates when I served as a counselor. Now, I love training counselors and guiding the program. It humbles me every day to be a part of such a fine staff.
What advice do you have for youth as they plan their future?
Take advantage of every new adventure. No matter the path you choose, be curious and try new things. Now is the time. Look for a path that feeds your head and your heart. And along the way, stay active and involved in your community and your country. Make selfless service a part of your plan.
What lessons are constant year after year?
American democracy is a work in progress. I think that's true now more than ever. Each year, we as a nation get a step closer to that more perfect union. But it takes work and vigilance to get there, and that work is up to us. Perhaps it's a bit of cliche to say that decisions are made by those who show up, but it's true. To make democracy work, we need to show up. To keep democracy strong, we need to be informed citizens. To make the United States a more perfect union, we need to participate. That work won't be done for us. It's up to us to do it for ourselves.
By Jennifer Donovan, Staff Writer
Are you an alumna of ALA Girls State? Let us know what you are doing now and how the program impacted your life. Contact us at ALAMagazine@ALAforVeterans.org.