Photo credit: Andrew Mather Photography

As summer slowly winds to a close, students across the nation will head back into classrooms for the upcoming academic year, and I find myself reflecting on the last few months. Nearly every June for the last 20 years, I traveled to the University of Central Missouri to serve as a volunteer staff member at Missouri Boys State, an eight-day, hands-on experience in the operation and fundamentals of government for rising high school senior boys. In other words, I spend eight days with nearly 1,000 17-year-old boys showing them the power of democracy and helping them build confidence in their leadership.

During the week, participants, or “citizens” as we call them, construct their own city, county, and state governments. They campaign for office, vote in elections, and create laws to govern themselves. Through specialized instruction in topics such as journalism, law, law enforcement, and commerce, citizens can earn college credit after successfully participating in the program and passing a rigorous examination during the week. We also have the privilege of hosting guest speakers who share knowledge as government officeholders, journalists, political consultants, business owners, and military leaders. In recent years, citizens have interacted with Karl Rove, David Axelrod, Bob Woodward, James Carville, Robert Gates, and Mike Huckabee.

Despite being a lawyer in the real world, my role at Missouri Boys State is in the Journalism School where I work closely with more than 100 citizens. I draw on my experience as a former teacher when providing instruction on the purpose of media in a democracy, the legal and ethical boundaries of journalism, and analyzing media in order to be an informed consumer. These citizens become journalists who chase down stories, hold their Boys State candidates and government accountable, and create real media in the form of daily newspapers, television broadcasts, and podcasts.

Overall, the program’s hands-on approach immerses citizens in a practical laboratory focused on democracy. The days are long, but the week is short. Although I return home to Los Angeles exhausted, the program energizes me. It is impressive to watch 1,000 young strangers transform into a unified body armed with the power of knowledge, newly-discovered leadership skills, and a thirst for continuing their civic engagement developed at the program. This week is life-changing—if you don’t believe me, you can ask President Bill Clinton, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, or even singer Bruce Springsteen who all attended a Boys State program. (There is a Boys State or Girls State program in every state, including California. The programs vary in content and method of procedure, but each adheres to the same basic concept: teaching rising seniors about government from the city to the state level.)

I never attended Missouri Boys State myself (I was a citizen of Texas Girls State and served on that staff for ten years), but the program is a part of who I am thanks to my dad who attended Missouri Boys State in 1975 and continues to serve on staff. A Boys State mentor even served as the officiant of my wedding. In many ways, my work at LCW seems like an extension of Boys State because I am able to support real public agencies and educational entities just like the citizens create during Boys State. Although there are many months before I travel back to Missouri, I am counting down the days and planning improvements for the session.

In the meantime, I sing the praise of teachers and school employees who provide high-quality instruction and student experiences for the infinitely longer academic year. I hope your summer was as energizing as mine, and if you happen to teach, know, or parent an outstanding student in the Class of 2021, I hope you consider nominating him or her for the next session of Boys State or Girls State.