The University of Oregon's student government office seems to be overrun with Forest Grove High School grads this year, creating a recipe for Viking-style
On Monday, Emily McLain and her crackerjack team of political activists signed up 491 University of Oregon students to vote in the May 20 primary election.
By Tuesday, the student body president was on track to register several hundred more in Eugene.
'We'll be out there every day between now and the end of April,' said the 22-year-old Forest Grove High School graduate. 'We're getting it done.'
Whether it's mobilizing young voters during a presidential election year, organizing security for last month's campus visit by White House hopeful Barack Obama or administering an $11 million budget for the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, McLain is in the thick of things.
She's far from alone.
Getting the job done seems to be a theme among several FGHS alums who have become involved - really involved - in student government at UO.
Together, they make up about one-eighth of the ASUO membership, young and passionate leaders who drive the decisions that affect more than 20,000 UO students.
At the head of the Viking vanguard is McLain, a 2003 FGHS graduate and current fifth-year senior at UO. She's a political science major who'll graduate in June with a lengthy resume of service to the university's student leadership ranks.
She addresses the Oregon Board of Education every month as chairman of the Oregon Student Association, a coalition of student government groups from around the state that fight for high-quality post-secondary education.
'She's really dedicated and driven, and she's incredibly articulate, which has been more than helpful to our organization,' said OSA executive director Tamara Henderson, who's known McLain for two years.
McLain also has lobbied in Salem and in Washington, D.C., for increased nonpartisan support for higher education.
There seems to be no end to her focused energy.
'Emily is very poised, very bright and extremely thought-ful,' said Dusty Miller, director of the UO's Erb Memorial Union, which houses the ASUO offices. 'I believe she will be a positive contributor to her community wherever she goes in life.'
Then there's 2004 FGHS grad Kari Herinckx, a senior majoring in family and human services at UO. She plans to return to Eugene in 2008-09 to pick up more classes before finally grabbing her sheepskin.
Herinckx, 22, is the ASUO's multicultural advocate, heading up programs that benefit minorities on campus.
Her name pops up regularly in stories written by staffers at the Daily Emerald, the UO's campus newspaper.
'Anytime we touch on the issue of expanding the diversity on campus, Kari is the go-to person,' said managing editor Katie Michael.
Michael, a former co-worker of Herinckx's at the Valley River Mall's Abercrombie and Fitch store, appreciates her sense of humor.
'Kari always has a smile on her face,' she said. 'She's an awesome leader.'
And count in Ella Barrett, a member of the Class of 2005 at Forest Grove High. The 20-year-old sophomore is majoring in psychology and has taken on the role of marketing specialist at ASUO, helping to plan the university's largest annual fund-raiser, the Street Fair.
Finally, there's Tracy Zapf, 19, a 2007 FGHS grad and journalism major. Last fall, after taking UO President Dave Frohnmayer's freshman leadership class, Zapf applied for and won an ASUO internship.
'I wouldn't be surprised if they saw more of Tracy around the office next year,' said McLain, who has been impressed by Zapf's confidence and ambition.
All four women have spent more hours than they can count inside the ASUO office. 'We kind of live there,' admitted McLain.
During that time, Miller, the facility manager, has had a chance to watch the quartet in action.
'These are outstanding young women who work hard to try and figure out how to do good government,' he said.
The fact that there are so many Forest Grove-grown Duck leaders this year is a source of pride - and amusement - to the young women.
'It's become kind of a joke,' said Herinckx.
Still, to McLain, it's no great surprise.
'I can honestly say we were all overly involved at Forest Grove High,' she said. 'So maybe it's destiny. I don't know - maybe there's something in the water in Forest Grove.'
While McLain comes by her activism naturally - her mother, Susan McLain, is a former Metro councilor - she's quick to point out that her parents didn't push her.
'I did everything from the spring musicals to playing three sports to debate team,' said McLain. 'My parents were always right there to encourage and support me, but it was my thing.'
McLain, Herinckx and Zapf each took their turn as Associated Student Body president at FGHS, in 2002-03, 2003-04 and 2006-07, respectively.
Barrett spent three years in the ASB, as secretary her sophomore year and activities manager as a junior and senior.
All of them were mentored by Howard Sullivan, the school's longtime activities adviser.
But the springboard for their individual and collective desire to make a difference in the world likely comes from within.
Shared back fence
McLain and Herinckx have known each other since they were students at Harvey Clarke Elementary School.
They went through Tom McCall Upper Elementary School together, where Herinckx was a peer mediator. And they endured typical pre-teen angst and first dances together at Neil Armstrong Middle School, where McLain was student body president her eighth-grade year.
'We had a mutual friend and her house and mine shared a back fence,' McLain said with a laugh. 'We knew each other really well.'
It's funny, McLain said, that the two women have wound up - once again - in a complementary niche.
'I guess it's just karma,' she explained, grinning at Herinckx. 'We were on this road, two different paths, that ended up in a place with similar ideals.'
For Herinckx, involvement in student government at the college level wasn't a foregone conclusion.
By the time she arrived on the Eugene campus in 2006, she was ready to 'just hang back,' she said. But it didn't take long for her to connect with students who had a passion for social justice, race relations and ethnicity issues.
She joined the Black Student Union and Black Women of Achievement groups on campus and was soon a regular inside the university's multicultural center.
'I had gained a new identity as a person of color,' said Herinckx, an African-American who was adopted as a baby by Karen and Stanley Herinckx. 'In Forest Grove the black population was something like 1 percent.
'I definitely came into some new passions as a multicultural advocate.'
Herinckx initially thought the ASUO was 'not a welcoming place' for a black woman to serve. 'I had a chip on my shoulder going in. I thought they were people who took their lives way too seriously,' she said.
Several friends, including McLain, talked her into applying for a leadership position.
'We dragged her in here,' McLain said with a grin.
In the past three years, Herinckx has worked to 'undo the effects of institutional racism' and form bonds between all minority cultures represented on campus.
When Illinois Sen. Barack Obama came to Eugene March 21, stumping for votes in the Democratic primary, Herinckx and McLain both were wide-eyed.
They galvanized students to serve as crowd control for Obama and gave the Secret Service a tour of McArthur Court before the candidate stepped to the podium before 9,000 people that evening.
Six-thousand more waited outside to hear his remarks.
'We were pretty star-struck,' admitted Herinckx, who 'definitely' will cast her vote for Obama in next month's primary election.
When McLain shook the senator's hand after his public appearance was over, she found herself at a rare loss for words.
'I said something like, 'Hi, my name's Emily McLain and I'm the student body president of the U of O,' and I said it really fast,' she recalled. 'He called me 'prez' after that. It was cool.'
All three women, including Barrett, were impressed by what McLain said was Obama's ability to 'use words that young college students understand.'
'He's bringing back the politics of hope and possibility,' she said. 'We've been exposed to the politics of fear for so long.'
For Herinckx, the candidate represents 'a certain humility that's needed' at the top level of government. She's happy that Obama is facing the topic of race relations head-on.
'You can't be a black man running for president and not speak on race,' she observed.
When New York Sen. Hillary Clinton visits campus this Saturday, the Forest Grove contingent will be present as well.
'We'll welcome Hillary and help her out just as much,' said McLain.
Not just politics
It isn't only politics that scratches the itch the foursome seems to have for inviting social change.
For Barrett, whose strength is in event planning, a penchant for activism also comes from understanding people.
'I love working with all kinds of people and learning what they want and need,' she said. Organizing the May 7-9 Street Fair - which draws 70 vendors to campus for the university's largest annual fund-raiser - is one way to do that.
'I think we're just four very powerful women who are lucky to have found a way to express ourselves,' said Barrett, whose home is in Timber, just outside Forest Grove.
Zapf assisted Barrett by coordinating volunteers for this spring's Street Fair. She's happy to round out her hometown's contingent of Duck leaders.
'I wasn't necessarily planning to get involved in student government at UO,' she said. 'But I saw how many people I knew who were involved, so I thought I'd be comfortable.'
Zapf plans to study in Spain for one semester next year but likely will gravitate back toward the student government office after she returns.
As a group, the ASUO is at work on several key issues, including accessible and affordable education for college students statewide; a transparent tuition policy at the UO that shows exactly where student fees go; and creating a new Department of Ethnic Studies on campus.
The former Viking women will take their positions on the front lines - pushing toward the end zone labeled 'progress.'
McLain argues that it's hard to resist the chance to become a change agent in your own backyard.
'We each really care about people and how to make their lives a little bit better,' said McLain, who originally thought she'd be a teacher. She and Herinckx both plan to pursue law degrees once they leave the UO.
'I want to commit a significant portion of my life to public service,' McLain said. 'But I still don't know in what way that will manifest itself.'
Herinckx summed up her experience in college student government so far - and that of her hometown peers - in four words: 'We're uber well-rounded.'