Updated: Apr 25, 2022
Today’s Boys State and Girls State help prepare tomorrow’s leaders
By J’Nel Wright. Previously published in VALOR, August 2020.
Following the devastation of the First World War, 20 officers, who had served in the American Expeditionary Forces, proposed the idea of forming an organization to boost morale and support war veterans. Under the guidance of US Army Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., they formed the American Legion in 1919.
In 1937, as a way to fortify civics instruction in high schools and to counter covert efforts by the Communist Party USA, the American Legion launched the Boys State program, and its companion women’s American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) started Girls State.
“Both programs are very similar in that we try to educate and motivate high schoolers to gain a better appreciation of the rights, responsibilities, obligations, and duties of citizenship beyond the most basic responsibility of voting,” explained Doug Case, president of American Legion Utah Boys State.
Every year, the Girls State and Boys State programs draw over 16,000 high schoolers preparing for their senior year. Participants are selected based on individual strengths that illustrate leadership, merit, character, scholarship, loyalty and service in their schools and community.
As part of this non-partisan curriculum, students assume the roles of government leaders through campaigning within mock parties to become mayors, county, and state officials of their ALA Girls “state.” Often held near a college campus, participants “live” within their city on campus throughout the week. Additionally, two “state” senators are selected from the 50 state programs to attend Girls/Boys Nation in Washington D.C.
“Our goal is to educate them on how to express their voices and create change,” explained Jennifer Hinton, ALA Utah Girls State director. “As a program, we teach about how municipal, county and state government work. They learn they can become active participants in political processes by attending caucuses, voting, forming committees, writing policy and law, and working on campaigns.”
If you want young people to understand why this country means so much to veterans, families, leaders, teachers—show them.
“Both the Girls State and Boys State programs provide a week-long environment where youth are given opportunities to interact with people of various social, religious, political, racial, and economic backgrounds,” said Hinton. “This allows them to be introduced to a wide array of ideas and opinions. They learn that civil dialogue includes not only talking, but also listening. They develop relationships and form communities with people they may not have outside of attendance at these programs.”
A lasting legacy
The Girls State model includes sharing information, experiences, and programs pertaining to our nation’s military veterans and their families, and active-duty service members and their families.
“They come to see these men and women as real people with real stories,” explained Hinton. “We also hope they learn that their individual service and sacrifice does not need to be politicized. We see first hand that many of today’s youth are deeply grateful for the sacrifice of members of our Armed Forces past and present.”
Adrienne Carter, GS alum of 2011, agrees. “My grandpa was a Marine on Iwo Jima, so my family and I had been involved with American Legion events (selling poppies, helping with Memorial Day activities, and so on) for a time prior to my junior year, so when it was time to apply for Girls State, I didn’t even have to think about it,” recalled Carter. “I’d been hoping to participate for years! I’d always been interested in government and politics, so Girls State was a perfect opportunity to learn more. I was lucky enough to be elected as Girls State Attorney General and return for a second year, this time on the other end of the action.”
Many will attest that the transformation among young people is real.
“As a counselor, you see the students come in not knowing anyone in their assigned city and leave being best friends with most of them,” recalled Cary Fisher, Department Executive Director, American Legion Auxiliary Department of Utah. “You see the student who is very quiet in the beginning suddenly speaking in front of 300 students. You see them afterward when you see their name as a candidate for an office, a leadership position in a university or joining the military. You see them gain confidence in themselves. You see students who receive scholarships who may have thought that attending college was out of reach for them. You see the growth in the students who choose to return as counselors or program staff.”
When Courtney Sinagra attended Girls State in 2010, she wasn’t going to do much more than observe. “I was going to fly under the radar and keep a low profile,” she admitted. But then she found herself campaigning for Girls State senator—one of the highest offices. “This was a huge step for me because I had to give speeches to crowds of people and really put myself out there to ask for their vote. I ended up winning the election. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed the process and felt a tangible, fundamental change within myself.”
In college, Sinagra majored in political science and joined on-campus political organizations. “I completed four political internships during my time as an undergraduate including one at the Utah State Legislature and one in Washington D.C. for US Sen. Orrin Hatch (whom I first met as part of Girls Nation).”
Sinagra would later work for Sen. Hatch as his Southern Utah director. “I was charged with being his ‘boots on the ground’ in nine Utah counties. As her interest and experience in politics deepened, she also became interested in the military. “In college, I worked in the veteran’s center helping veteran students adjust to civilian life and use their education benefits. I also joined the Utah National Guard and am currently a sergeant in the Field Artillery. I am excited because this fall I will start the next chapter of my journey as a law student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.”
Carter credits Girls State for teaching her the ins and outs of Utah government. “It was particularly helpful during my time working as Legislative Advocate for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in their DC office, as we worked with members of the Utah delegation, county commissions, various agencies and beyond,” said Carter, who attended the University of Texas at Austin. She completed an internship with Vote Smart, tracking and analyzing legislation for several states, including Utah. “My knowledge and experience from Girls State was particularly helpful—especially the experience of drafting and debating mock legislation—and part of my inspiration for applying to the internship,” she said.
“My experience at Girls State has also proved helpful during my time working as a research assistant for long-time Washington journalist Al Hunt, and more recently consulting on his podcast ‘Politics War Room 2020’ with James Carville. As I’ve completed research tasks and assisted with events, the knowledge on the inner workings of our government has been crucial, and Girls State provided such a strong base.”
Today, Carter works in the Media and Public Affairs for the No Kid Hungry, a campaign of Share Our Strength, an organization working to end hunger and poverty.
“I know that not everyone who attends Girls State is going to end up working in politics, joining the military, or becoming a lawyer, but the simple foundational understanding of civics provided by the Girls State experience is going to help participants advance any cause they are passionate about,” said Sinagra. “Additionally, the sweet and inclusive spirit that is found amongst Girls State attendees does amazing things for young ladies who are trying to figure out who they are. I have loved going back to Girls State as a counselor. Watching the young women in my city come into their own has been very rewarding.”
Hinton sees three significant transformations in those that attend. First, she sees young people come to appreciate the power of voting.
“Secondly, they actively seek to improve society by addressing social, economic, and political issues,” said Hinton. “They do this through various means such as running for public office, writing letters to their legislators, organizing protests, obtaining higher education in related subjects, joining local committees, and working for organizations that seek to address issues important to them.”
And third, they deepen their knowledge and love for their country. Hinton says that regardless of their political views and personal life experiences the majority is grateful to live in the United States and is actively finding ways to improve it.
“Our hopes are that their perspectives on our nation’s history, government processes, societal issues and military service are broadened allowing them to become more empathic instead of apathetic,” she said.
An enduring tradition
The Boys State program has certainly come a long way since its launch at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, Illinois. Now, every state actively supports a program that has set the stage for some of history’s most accomplished leaders.
US Sen. Mike Lee and US Attorney David Barlow both participated in Boys State and Boys Nation. But the program also attracted the likes of award-winning singer and entertainer Al Jarreau, Nick Saban, head football coach at the University of Alabama, Tom Brokaw, an American journalist and NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Case says that former students (alumni) have expressed how the program helped them see themselves as individuals standing on their own, yet they were able and willing to work as a group for the collective good.
“Without fail, everyone has offered that the experience has given them just a little humility while gaining a greater sense of appreciation and gratitude for our democracy, the freedoms we enjoy and the men and women who have made and continue to make it possible.”
Through the years, Case has witnessed firsthand how Boys State impacts young people. “It’s a confidence builder,” he said. “For many, the Boys State experience brings them out of their shell, shows them it’s OK to share ideas, communicate with others, and respectfully disagree from time to time.”
Today’s Girls State and Boys State leaders and graduates agree that these programs help young people become politically engaged, more informed as voters, and more active as residents of the country. “One of the driving forces of the very change young people hope for is, naturally, the government,” explained Carter. “The government affects so many aspects of our lives, on local, state and national levels, and understanding the infrastructure is critical base knowledge.”
J'Nel Wright is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in topics concerning history and human interest stories. She enjoys sitting for coffee, standing for the national anthem, and enjoying family in-between.
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