The 2018 American Legion Boys Nation graduation ceremony is held at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., on Friday, July 27, 2018. Photo by Lucas Carter/The American Legion.

Junior counselors: the 'backbone' of Boys Nation

As he introduced the junior counselors (JC) for recognition at the 2018 Boys Nation graduation ceremony, senior counselor Andrew Behnkendorf — himself a former JC — called them “the backbone that make this ship run.”

“This program, No. 1, is about you guys,” he said to the Boys Nation senators. “But in order for that to be facilitated and to have the best mentorship that you can, we have to select the best junior counselors we possibly can to help move that ship forward.”

Each year at Boys Nation, the volunteer staff includes eight college students who serve as junior counselors, with two assigned to each of the four sections. All have previously attended Boys Nation as delegates; some are just a year removed from their delegate year.

“It was pretty challenging at first to meet the requirements of being a JC and having that separation between yourself and the delegates,” said Matt Rosenthal, a 2015 Boys Nation delegate who came back as a junior counselor the following year. “But I think by my second year — and I learned a lot from my other JC at the time, Blake Humphrey — he taught me how to connect with the kids but also to step back and let them do their thing.”

Being closer in age to the delegates than the rest of the staff gives the junior counselors better insight into what the delegates are going through, said Rory Calabria.

“We can help them with things like college applications, or how do you choose an institution, or maybe being self-aware enough to know that maybe college isn’t the next step for you, maybe you’re off or starting work immediately,” he said.

“I think so much of what we do is saying, ‘Hey, these are really important questions. Let’s reframe them,’” said Ben Schaefer. “This is not about what SAT score do I need to get into Stanford, this is about what kind of person do I need to be to get into Stanford. I think that’s one of the biggest responsibilities of us all being college students, we know what it takes to get to college, to succeed really well and to fail really well, and kind of being able to prepare the delegates for a major shift. … I think that’s what I’ve seen as the biggest responsibility as JC is modeling what it means to be a student in a really competitive environment.”

Junior counselors’ stints in those roles max out at three years, although it’s possible for them to come back in other positions if there’s an opening. The 2018 program was the last year as JCs for Calabria, Rosenthal and Schaefer.

Humphrey, whose three years as a Boys Nation JC ended in 2017, said, “I look back on it now, and the fact that (we) were responsible for all these kids, it’s a tremendous responsibility, but it’s a fun one. And I think the most fun thing for me and the most encouraging part for me of being a junior counselor is seeing the development from day one to day 10. How people can truly transform and change within a short period of time for the better. How they can better understand themselves, their strengths, their weaknesses, their opportunities, all sorts of things; that time of discovery, that time of vulnerability in many ways. … I view the role of the junior counselor as a profound one, because our role is to guide them through the process, make sure they have what they need, be there for leadership development, be there for support. It’s an amazing role, and it’s a very special role, and it takes a special person. I was very fortunate to do it for three years.”

As former Boys Nation delegates themselves, the junior counselors can bring their own experiences to bear when helping the next group of senators. Calabria noted that he made it to Boys State as an alternate.

“I think it is a testament to something I absolutely love, a saying, showing up is half the battle. You don’t have to be a genius to make a difference, you just have to be present, and I showed up to that interview, I didn’t get it, and when I got that letter saying you’re the first alternate and you’re up, I think I could have easily let my ego say, 'No, I wasn’t first choice, I’m not qualified.' I think showing up and participating, as rudimentary as that sounds, is huge. You show up in life, you’ll go places,” Calabria said.

Schaefer’s experience as a Boys Nation delegate was difficult, he said, because of some of the politicking that went on. That’s precisely why he wanted to come back as a junior counselor—to make sure other delegates “had an incredible experience.”

“It’s a pretty incredible thing we do here. To say that for eight days, you take 100 boys from every race, religion, political conviction, put them in a room and say, 'Hey, it’s your time now.' All I will say is to be a part of that process once is a blessing. To be a part of that process four times is unimaginable,” Schaefer said. “… I start off my section meeting the same way every time … the guiding principle of what we do here is respect. And that means respect for the flag, respect for the veterans who make this program possible, that means respect for the legislative process, that means respect for the elections, that means respect for yourself. And I have now learned that four times over, and I have come out a better person because of that.”

Even after their time on the Boys Nation staff is done, junior counselors aim to spread the word about the program — what it’s done for them and what it can do for others.

“I don’t think it’s talked about enough. I don’t think The American Legion right now in my age group, and then in younger age groups, is given the time of day that it deserves,” Calabria said. “I think it should be something that we have thousands of kids showing up for Boys State every year, and it’s not there yet. So I want people … to know that we’re looking for you. If you’re a parent who has children that you feel their sense of civic duty is not yet on fire, than Boys State is a great place to go. If that sense of duty and honor is already there, let’s build it by sending them to Boys State and Boys Nation. Same with Girls State, Girls Nation. I have two sisters coming up the ranks, I’d love for them to go to Girls State, Girls Nation.”


Boys Nation

At Boys State / Nation, participants learn the rights, privileges and responsibilities of franchised citizens. The training is objective and centers on the structure of city, county and state governments.

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