Even now, there are moments when Aravind Byju doesn’t quite believe he really was president at Boys State in 2015.
“The final moment when they announced my name, it was very humbling," he said. "I was in shock, and I don’t know if even now it’s really hit me. But just getting that experience was really fantastic, and knowing that other people connected with me and liked my message and they believed in me,."
It took the urging of his roommate at Boys Nation to convince Byju, of Osprey, Fla., to run for president.
“It was my roommate, Steve Lowry from Arkansas, who kind of gave me the push to run,” Byju said. “He said, ‘Hey, man, you don’t want to be flying home on that plane and thinking, Oh, I wish I did that.’ And it was that advice to put it all out there that really stuck with me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I owe it to myself and I owe it to everyone else that was fighting to get this position to at least put my all into the program.”
Byju edged Iowa’s Cole Patton 50-46 in the voting. He recalled how suspenseful the election process was.
“The directors of Boys Nation love to keep us in suspense.," Byju said. "They do it each state, each state goes up one by one, alphabetical order, ending with Wyoming, and each senator goes to the mic and says, ‘I’m voting for Sen. Byju’ or ‘Sen. Patton.’
“ … I was running against Cole Patton, fantastic candidate, and I think he deserved it just as much as I did. We came down to four votes or something ridiculous like that, so I think it just shows the caliber of where everyone’s at there.”
Byju was familiar with Boys State thanks to his brother Arjun’s experience at Florida Boys State in 2013, and a schoolmate of Byju’s at Pine View School in Osprey also attended Boys State in 2014.
“(So) I was familiar with The American Legion and a couple of the other veterans’ organizations; in our local community, they’re very active with the Sarasota post, the Venice post, they do scholarships, as well as The American Legion Auxiliary, they’re pretty prominent in the area too with the Girls State program, the Girls Nation program, I had heard about all that too,” he said. “It was all really exciting for me because I had been hearing about it through my whole high school career, this organization that really was giving all these opportunities. But to finally latch on to some of these was really a great experience.”
Byju’s experience at Boys State in Tallahassee helped him learn more about Florida’s government. And he acknowledges that the motto of Boys Nation, “A week to change a lifetime,” is an apt one.
“I think everyone there, and the 97 other boys would be able to tell you that you come out of that week much different than when you came in,” he said. “… Just kind of getting that humbling experience and realizing that you can still fit in and broaden your horizons by meeting people, that was probably what I took out of it the most.”
The opportunity to see the sights of Washington, D.C., also left a lasting impact on Byju and his peers.
“We had the amazing opportunity to go to Arlington National Cemetery, and we were able to lay a wreath on behalf of the program at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," Byju said. "Then on that same day, we went to the White House and we got to meet President Obama, and he said some words to us and we all got to shake his hand, so that was an overwhelming day. I went home and I’m sitting in my dorm bed, I was like, ‘This has to be a dream.’”
This fall, Byju will head to Harvard University where he plans to study government and politics, as well as a social law track.
“I will say for a fact the Boys State program and the Boys Nation program have definitely inculcated a huge interest in law and politics," he said. "I’d always been interested in law, I participate in our local teen court programs, and with speech and debate, I get a little bit of that. But getting the government aspect of it, I think it definitely adds a different side of the coin; I mean, these are the guys that make the laws, and I’ve always wanted to defend the law. So I think maybe somewhere down the future I would be interested in public service, and actually having these experiences and seeing what our public servants do, or what they’re supposed to do at least, gives you a little bit of perspective and definitely opens some doors for me."
Byju noted that the Boys State and Boys Nation experience goes beyond simply learning about government’s inner workings. “I think further than that, you learn these tenets of The American Legion, which are Americanism and brotherhood and the camaraderie that comes with it, is something that you’re not going to learn in a classroom and I think is really hard to learn in a week, but somehow the Legionnaires teach it to you, so I think going there and learning how to communicate with other people, and learning the humbling experience of being with your peers who are just miles above you," he said. "I think all those are lessons that you’re not going to get to learn anywhere else, and it’s the network you take out. We all have a Facebook page, and I think with today’s technology, everyone, all these fantastic people I met, I know I’m going to be seeing for the rest of my life. And I think staying in touch with them, you create a lot of great connections of these programs. So all in all, it’s an opportunity you do not want to miss.”
Byju expressed his gratitude to The American Legion, including his local post, Post 159 in Venice, Fla.
“The Legion doesn’t have to do what they’re doing, and I think that’s what the whole message of The American Legion comes to: you don’t have to pick up a gun and fight for your country, you’re not forced into that, but with the same message, The American Legion is not forced into having these fantastic youth programs," he said. "But I think it’s that feeling of a duty and a feeling of responsibility to help your country and to pave the way for the future and teach my generation these lessons … that’s what a lot of these programs come down to.
“And I got to go to The American Legion national convention as Boys Nation president, I got to meet some of the other youth champion delegates, the Eagle Scout of the year, the all-American baseball team player, the sharpshooter, the oratorical contest winner, and I got to see the full extent of the Legion. And I think that was something we didn’t get to experience too much in Boys Nation, because like I said, we kind of had our noses down and we were trying to do our own thing. But when I got to see the convention and just what a large organization the Legion is and what they’re doing for this country, I think that was extremely humbling. And so I would definitely want to say a huge thank you to everyone in the Legion and anyone who’s ever been part of it, because you change lives like mine every single day.”