At Texas Boys State, ‘the energy of being back in person is remarkable’

Members of the Texas Boys State staff recall the program’s first day in prior years as being somewhat muted as rising juniors — the program’s “statesmen” — from across the state arrived at the University of Texas in Austin.

Not so much in 2022.

“There’s just a ton of pent-up energy, not only among the counselor staff, but you can also feel it among the statesmen as well,” said Stephen Pennington, the election administrator for the 2022 session of American Legion Texas Boys State. “I think with them being virtual for school, for many of them at least a year, I think they’re excited to be back at summer programs.”

Daren Brabham, the program’s assistant director of media relations, added, “A lot of what makes this program magical is seeing each other face to face. The counselors coming together and seeing each other once again, because we live all over, but seeing the statesmen come through and make these bonds and hear these chants and hear the roar of the crowd and the band going off, there’s nothing like being in person, especially back here at UT.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic surged in the spring of 2020, forcing the cancellation of in-person American Legion programs, the Texas Boys State staff mobilized to put together a virtual program — the only Boys State program to meet in 2020.

“We were forced to get real good at technology,” said Pennington, who along with Sawyer Knight put together the technology help desk that aided statesmen, parents and staff through the online-only program in 2020 and 2021.

The help desk is one of the technological upgrades implemented over the past two years that have been carried over as Texas Boys State returned to in-person this year.

“On the front end, we’re checking people in early, before they get here, we know who’s coming,” said assistant director Kreg Bryant. “So using online check-in tools allows us, much like an airline or a hotel, to preset where people are coming from and when they’ll be here.”

“I think virtual forced us to integrate technology into the program to a much higher degree,” said Ben Feinstein, a senior counselor and Federalist party advisor who was one of the statesmen from 2018 featured in the award-winning documentary “Boys State.”

“An example of that is Telegram. Telegram is our messaging system for all of the counselors. I could be wrong on this, but I believe it was something that either started or was significantly put into force virtually, and we use it all day, every day. It’s huge for the logistics of the program,” Feinstein said.

“And I think the other thing is our election. Boys State elections when I was a statesman in 2018, it was an old Java program that you went up on a 20-year-old laptop and clicked and now it’s a modernized website on a centralized database, and it makes it so much easier to submit and check and validate and get those results out,” Feinstein added.

“As we’re moving back into person with the program now, we’re seeing the benefits of that: having an integrated system where we can track things, from student applications literally through to help desk tickets now,” Knight said.

Assistant director of programming Mark Mayer said, “The online experience gave us the ability to understand that, you know what, the young men can learn and have their phones in their hand and their devices out. I see us steering into that technology instead of, in the past, steering away from it so there weren’t distractions.”

Feinstein added, “I think virtual accomplished a lot of the objectives that Boys State is trying to accomplish, and it did so pretty well considering the circumstances. That said, the energy of being back in person is remarkable, just the connections that you can make to your other counselors, to the statesmen, the energy in a room is just something that you can’t rival on a Webex call.”

And while the return to campus provides plenty of energy for the statesmen, for the staff being back in person is, as Texas Boys State Director Scott T. Armstrong said, “a homecoming.”

“There was some camaraderie with the virtual sessions … but I think the camaraderie is a lot stronger in person,” said counselor Joseph Campbell.

“The staff, we’re all volunteers, there’s 100-plus of us that come back year after year, some of us have been with the program 40-something years, some of us are fresh out of high school and were just statesmen last year; that bond that we have with each other, we’ve been at each other’s weddings, we’ve performed each other’s weddings, we’ve been to each other’s funerals, we’ve consoled families, we’ve seen each other’s kids grow up,” Brabham said.

“So we’re a family too, and I think getting to see everyone in person again, people that just don’t live in the city you live in year round, that to me is part of this fraternity, this bond of Boys State that really refreshes me and renews me for the year every time I come back. I’m glad we’re back in person, I’m glad we’re still going as a program, and I’m glad I get to see all my friends again.”


Boys 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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