RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Growing up in a military family, Tayla Oliver learned the importance of respect and responsibility from a young age.
After working at Kirtland Air Force Base as a youth leader for several years, Oliver, 17, recently earned the title of Military Youth of the Year at the state level.
Military Youth of the Year is a component of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America Youth of the Year program. It recognizes outstanding teenagers who serve on Boys & Girls Clubs-affiliated youth centers on military installations, according to the organization’s website.
Oliver, who graduates from Rio Rancho High School this week, said growing up with her father serving in the Air Force, she became involved in the youth programs available. As a volunteer and mentor to younger kids over the past two years, Oliver became familiar with the place and the people, and was encouraged by her best friend to run for Military Youth of the Year.
Oliver had to write speeches and prepare to talk in front of large audiences to receive her title. Oliver said her advisor, Heather Hutzell, and her best friend Erynn Rider, who won New Mexico Military Youth of the Year last year, helped her most throughout her journey.
“Heather was always there whenever I needed something,” Oliver said. “When I was writing my speech, she would be on my tail like, ‘Hey, how’s the speech going? Send it to me when you’re done so I can edit it.'”
Hutzell pushed Oliver to try for the title in the first place and helped her describe her “personal brand,” which was one essay topic.
“She told me, ‘You’re so adaptable and you need to touch on that. You make friends wherever you go, you’re really easy to get along with and you stay true to yourself at all times,'” Oliver recalled.
Rider helped Oliver memorize and polish her speech.
“She was there bouncing ideas off me, telling me which ideas were really good, making sure I emphasize the Kirtland Air Force Base, and the history of where I come from and how long I’ve been here,” Oliver said.
When preparing for her interview with the judges, Oliver said she didn’t pre-plan her answers to the questions.
“I had just looked through them, and I had ideas of what I wanted to say,” she said. “I was really just being myself the entire time, because I really wanted my answers to be genuine — I didn’t want to sound like a robot.”
Oliver said a lot of the questions were regarding the essays she wrote, most of which discussed her personal brand. She said her brand was more of a slogan: Be like a sponge.
“I said (in my essay) being a sponge is like being a well-rounded person,” Oliver said. “… The last sentence in my essay was about being influential in a positive way and initiating change. Giving back, innovating, spreading positivity and being sponges of the world to soak up wisdom, experience and cultures — I think I’ve been a pretty useful sponge.”
Oliver’s message for future applicants for Military Youth of the Year is to be themselves. She said they must know their message and stay true to themselves when sharing it.
“I feel like the judges aren’t really looking for programed people,” Oliver said. “It’s like studying for a test — you have all of the answers, but you have to know your stuff. You can’t just copy it.
“Just being yourself — the authenticity will come in through your personality, and you’ll be able to connect to more people that way.”
Her title helped give Oliver a choice in what college she will attend next year — either Prairie View A&M University or Tuskegee University. Oliver said the $5,000 scholarship from the Youth of the Year program, as well as other scholarships she’s applied for, will help her earn a degree in mechanical engineering.