Boys Nation: 'You're never going to have an opportunity like this again'

Darius Thomas of Phenix City, Ala., was elected president of the 2017 American Legion Boys Nation program last July after winning the race for governor of Alabama Boys State the month prior. He plans to major in public health at the University of Alabama.

Thomas spoke with The American Legion about his experience on April 28 at Fletcher McCollister Post 135 in Phenix City, the post which sponsored him for Alabama Boys State.

Q: How did you find out about the Boys State and Boys Nation programs? Did you have any knowledge of them before you applied?

A: I didn’t know anything about the programs. Because I had a leadership position with another organization (HOSA-Future Health Professionals), my school counselor contacted me and she let me know that I would probably be a good fit for the program. So my school counselor, Mrs. Lewis, let me know about it, and from Boys State, I decided to run for governor, and of course, after winning governor, the way we do it in Alabama is, we move on the governor and lieutenant governor to Boys Nation. That’s how I found out about it.

Q: What prompted you to decide to run for governor at Alabama Boys State?

A: I just decided to go for the biggest position. There was a point where I just felt like I wasn’t going to win the election, and I was like, ‘It’s OK, you win some, you lose some.’ And then like, I didn’t even know there was a big scholarship on the line. But once you find out about that, that kind of motivates you again, you know? And I was kind of like, ‘OK, I’ll give it all my effort.’

I think my motivating force though was to just say like, ‘OK, I’m going to do something new, I might as well try my hardest. Go big or go home.’ So I went for the biggest position. It was early mornings, late nights, campaigning, shaking hands, telling everyone to vote for me. I had some posters I put up over the campus of the University of Alabama. It was just kind of like a thing where I was like, ‘I’m going to do something to the highest possible capacity I can.’

Q: You doubted your chances at becoming president at Boys Nation.

A: I always have this problem where I’m kind of doubting myself, and a lot of people tell me I need to stop doing that, be confident. But I’ve never been someone who’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to go in there and I’m going to totally win this.’ I always have some kind of self-doubt and I think it kind of keeps me grounded in reality sometimes? But whenever I was there, you know, I kind of pulled up in my clothes for the airport, I was dressing comfortable, and I’m walking to the airport and I see these guys come up in suits and I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ It was kind of like, I needed to understand that, hey, I’m here, and I can compete on this level.

Running for president, I knew it was a big deal because almost everyone wanted to run and everyone was talking about it. And so I was kind of like, ‘Everyone wants to run, what are my chances?’ So it took me a long time to fully, 100 percent, commit to it.

Q: Beyond recognizing the self-doubt you sometimes have, what else did you learn about yourself through these experiences?

A: Oh, man, you know the guy I ran against, Blake Barclay, one of the most intelligent guys I ever met. He is super intelligent. I mean, he’s going to Harvard, super smart guy. And I think what I learned about myself is like, you know, it’s not about any one thing, it’s about connecting with individuals. I noticed that no matter how much of an underdog you may feel, you can still overcome the obstacles, and it’s about just connecting with others, being passionate, and if you’re a genuine person, people connect with that. And so that’s pretty much what I learned about myself, being able to be passionate and connect with others.

Q: Have you seen those lessons learned in your senior year?

A: What I’ve seen, though, from that experience, kind of feeling like an underdog, I’ve been able to feel more confident in other things I’m pursuing. So like this summer, I’m pursuing another national position, and I just feel more confident about it because I know that no matter any one thing, you can compete at a high level if you’re genuine, you’re passionate, you care about it, so that’s what I’ve learned for this senior year.

And this senior year has been great for me. When I came home from winning Boys Nation president, I was in the newspaper, there’s all this stuff; you’re kind of like a hometown hero a little bit. My face was on the front of my school’s board outside, cars see it when they drive by, and there’s so many statewide newspapers and stuff on me, so that was super awesome.

Q: How do you sell someone on giving Boys State a chance?

A: That’s a good question, because a lot of kids are like, ‘I don’t know what it’s really about, I’m not going to do it.’ And I was kind of like that reluctant type as well. The motto is 'a week that changes a lifetime,' and it 100 percent is absolutely true. I can tell you that I have never, I said it in my interview after I won Boys Nation President, there’s been nothing that has added up to this kind of impact on my life that Boys State and Boys Nation has had. Because of Boys State, I got a scholarship that has let me find my path forward to the college I want to go to.

My selling points I guess would be, you’re never going to have an opportunity like this ever again. You have one chance at participating in Boys State in that capacity, so I think you need to take advantage of it. You can connect with guys all across your state, and all across the country. You’ll never forget those guys; you’ll run into them later on, we still communicate, Boys Nation guys and Boys State guys still communicate. It’s really awesome to see the bond you connect. For me, that was the most surprising thing; at the end of the week to know that I have bonded so much with these guys that I just met, it’s kind of surprising, really, to know that there’s such a bond at the end of the week between your personalities. So give it a shot for sure.

Q: Any other advice?

A: I remember, I was talking to a kid about it, and he was like, ‘I’m not really good at public speaking, I don’t think I want to do it,’ and I was like, ‘Well, Boys State isn’t all about getting on a stage and speaking in front of everyone, and neither is Boys Nation.’ You can lead in different capacities. But I think if you think public speaking is kind of a downfall for you, if you’re nervous about that, I tell people all the time not try to block out your nervousness, but instead accept it and understand that you’re nervous and try to deal with it. If you’re walking on a stage, instead of pacing back and forth, understand and try to walk slow, come off as you’re not nervous. That’s what I try to tell the people to get into it.

Q: You understand that because you’ve also participated in the Legion's Oratorical Contest. (Thomas won district and regional competitions in Alabama).

A: Yes, yes. Doing a 10-minute speech is kind of daunting at first, but then you’re like, ‘OK, OK, if I just remember some key points and do that.’

Q: Anything else to share about the program?

A: At the end of the week, when I saw that Boys Nation Senate sign come down, it really hit hard. ‘Oh my gosh, it’s about to be over.’ You know it’s coming to an end, but when it comes to an end, it’s kind of emotional. I had such a great time there. I think that if there’s one thing I remember about my senior year in high school, about this moment in my life, it’s going to be that kind of experience. I’ve never really been on a stage like that.

One of the best things about winning president was being able to go to The American Legion national convention (in Reno, Nev., last August). I had such a great time there, speaking to all the veterans there. It was an amazing time. Just kind of reflecting on the kind of emotional impact it had, and how it’s impacted my life going forward, and because of Boys Nation and Boys State, I’ve been able to — you know, when I put that on my resume or anything for applications, it’s like people look at that and it’s just like, ‘Hey, we want to interview you for this scholarship now’ and it’s because of that. So when people see that stuff, it opens up so many other doors. That’s what I’m really thankful for.

Q: Have your experiences with these programs affected your appreciation for what veterans have done for this country?

A: 100 percent. You know, I’m a patriotic person anyway, I love this country and I love everything our veterans have done to have served our country and to make sure we are safe and make sure the American values are conserved and are in a safe spot. Ten times that now, going through these programs, ten times that. For my senior project this year, actually, I went to the county commission, which is right down the road, and … I got a resolution signed by the county commission chair, and it’s a veterans appreciation resolution, and it basically just states and affirms Phenix City’s and Russell County’s support for our veterans. I felt like that was something I wanted to do, even though it’s a small thing to do in terms of the big sacrifices our veterans have made, I wanted to do that. My appreciation for veterans has definitely skyrocketed even more than what it was before for what they’ve done.

There’s a difference now, serving our country and then being in The American Legion and still serving your communities. That’s the big thing that gets me, you’re still serving the country in some way, doing these youth programs, helping me get a scholarship, helping me do this or do that, that’s a big thing.

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