In January 2017, South Carolina’s Palmetto Boys State (PBS) program tweeted photos of the new student center at Anderson University, which hosts the program each June:
A couple days later, a response from Louisiana Boys State’s Twitter: “Looks great! Can we visit?”
The answer? “This is South Carolina. We love visitors. #SouthernHospitality #WeAreBoysState”
What would seem to be a spur-of-the-moment exchange between Boys State programs actually had been in the works for awhile.
“A combination of active engagement between the programs on social media, conversations I had had several years ago with a former PBS senior counselor, and wanting to observe a well-run program larger than our own led Micah (Scott) and I to discuss reaching out to PBS about possibly coming for a few days of informal observations,” said Louisiana Boys State (LABS) external affairs and production staffer William Hogan in an email conversation. He attended graduate school at the University of South Carolina and has a brother who lives in Greenville, while Scott, LABS’ operations manager, lives in South Carolina.
“Our original thought was to ask if we could sit in on sessions, assemblies, elections, etc., and just watch, Micah coming in each evening from work and me commuting to and from my brother's house each day. However, before we made that request via email, events in the form of joking tweets and a subsequent formal invitation from (PBS Director) Stephen Lewis surpassed our original plan.”
Hogan, Scott and fellow LABS staff members Brian Rees (academics) and John Jones (counselor development) spent a week at PBS observing how the larger program — South Carolina had 1,062 participants last year while Louisiana drew 400 high school seniors-to-be — was conducted.
It helped that not only did Hogan and Scott have ties to South Carolina, but that there was at least a few days between programs. Palmetto Boys State ran from June 11-17, while Louisiana Boys State was held June 25-July 1.
“The fact that there was a week between the two programs was why the exchange was even able to happen at all,” Hogan said. “As it was, we left PBS on Saturday and arrived at (Northwestern State University, the host institution for LABS) on Thursday. Each one of us, depending on where we live and travel arrangements, had about 3.5 days at home between the programs.”
Scott was able to commute to PBS each evening after work while Hogan, Jones and Rees drove from north Louisiana and Memphis to stay at the program. The opportunity to stay on campus during the South Carolina program proved beneficial, as the visitors could be more than “passive observers.”
“When we visited PBS, in addition to simply observing at certain points, we were engaged and were able to participate in various components of the program as if we ourselves were on staff there,” Hogan said. “One or more of us sat in on or participated in counselor training, registration, Boys State store operations, production assistance, electronic voting, legislative sessions, etc. We also shadowed multiple members of PBS' senior staff at various points to observe components of the program from their perspective.”
Daily debriefing sessions, one with the Louisiana staff and PBS program liaison Dave Fleming and another with Lewis or another PBS senior staff member, allowed the LABS contingent to discuss what they had seen and compare it with their own program.
“We found that meal times were incredibly useful time periods to have informal conversations to add context to what we saw and heard. We made a point to seek out different members of staff to eat with at each meal,” Hogan said.
“Second, each night the four of us ended the day by comparing notes, discussing what we had seen and done, what we liked most and least from the day, and any ideas that might be incorporated in the short-term and long-term at LABS.”
Fleming said PBS was “eager” to host visitors from any American Legion Boys State program.
“We will welcome visitors as one of our own and put them to work so that they experience the program rather than just sit on the sideline,” Fleming said. “It is also helpful to have some conversations before the visit to determine some program factors of interest and the specific program responsibilities of the staff members visiting. In that way, the most optimal program experiences can be arranged. We all agreed that integrating visiting staff members into our program activities was much more valuable for both programs and the resulting conversations were very rich. …
“Their input on our activities was invaluable for the two-way information exchange,” Fleming added. “This was truly a mutually beneficial experience from the start.”
While there are differences between the programs beyond the number of attendees — for example, Louisiana’s teaching model is more immersive than South Carolina’s — Hogan said there are several things he and his colleagues took away from the week to implement at LABS, including:
• Introducing digital media download cards to share digital content from the program with citizens at 2017 LABS;
• Expanding manpower and organization on the program’s administrative side in order to implement plans for the future, including a mid-year planning retreat for the executive and administrative teams;
• Merchandising and branding ideas to help strengthen LABS’ identity and financial footing;
• Emphasizing and rebranding the political party process for 2018;
• Expanding audio-visual production; and
• Expanding public media promotion.
Likewise, Fleming said PBS will be implementing many of the ideas shared by the LBS staff, including “some excellent elections process ideas for our state offices.”
“The American Legion Palmetto Boys State program hosts over 1,000 delegates each year. Coordinating an elections process for that many high achievers down to eight state level constitutional offices is always a challenge. The LBS program staff had some great suggestions for modifying this process,” Fleming said.
Hogan and Fleming said their respective staffs are willing and able to share their lessons from the staff exchange. Scott presented at South Carolina’s planning retreat in January, and Hogan, an academic advisor at Florida State University, will be visiting Florida Boys State this year.
Fleming noted that an exit survey showed that 86 percent of last year’s delegates said their perception of the Legion was “very favorable” in an exit survey; 92 percent of parents agreed.
“Considering that most of these delegates were relatively unfamiliar with The American Legion and their mission before the program, we feel that our program serves as a wonderfully effective introduction to this organization,” said Fleming, who encouraged other programs to contact South Carolina’s for details on how to promote the Legion within their local program.
“A staff exchange program is most beneficial if the relationship is continued beyond the dates of the programs themselves,” Hogan said. “Obviously it is a little easier for us since Micah is able to actually visit with PBS staff members in person in South Carolina, but constant communication and feedback even after the programs end is key. We feel that a continued relationship between programs will only make what we offer our young men better and better.”