In 1937, young men in the state of Kansas received their first opportunity to have their lives changed.

The American Legion Boys State of Kansas debuted, and for the past 80 years, the program has been instilling ideals of civic responsibility and leadership into our communities by providing a relevant and real-world interactive program aimed at creating more engaged members of society.

Boys State is a “learning by doing” political exercise that simulates elections, political parties and government at the state, county and local levels, providing opportunities to lead under pressure, showcasing character and working effectively within a team. It’s also an opportunity to gain pride and respect for government and the price paid by members of the military to preserve democracy.

The goal is for participants — they are called Staters and they are young men entering their senior year of high school — to leave the program with new leadership skills and feeling empowered to enact positive change in their local communities. Though this has always been a primary objective, this year the curriculum of the program has focused on this more intently, putting the emphasis on city and county government. After all, when a Stater leaves the program, that is the area where he can affect the greatest good.

The 2017 session kicked off today, and I am once again the Program Coordinator, meaning I oversee the day-to-day operations of the program. I work with a talented team of other Coordinators who are charged with various aspects of the program. Below them, if one where to look at a hierarchy, are nearly 100 other staff members teaching the Staters about all aspects of government. I always feel honored and humbled to be able to work with the caliber of people who volunteer their time to make Boys State the program it is.

This year’s session, which as I mentioned is the 80th anniversary of the Kansas program, is taking place today through Friday on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. It was planned with care. You can see what is happening each day by visiting http://ksbstate.org/curriculum/schedule/. You can keep up with the details of the session at http://ksbstate.org/2017-session-2, and http://ksbstate.org/news/ will have Stater-produced news (print, video, and audio) and staff-shot photos throughout the week.

In 2003, I was a Stater, and the program impacted me deeply. It gave me the opportunity to explore my own leadership abilities and grow them into life-long skills, and the lessons I learned from my time as a Stater, which is what the participants are referred to as, still influence me today.

If it weren’t for Boys State, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I wouldn’t be a journalist. While at State, I was elected by my county to be the newspaper reporter. At the first meeting of the newspaper, called the Staters Union, I was then elected by the other staff members to the editor-in-chief. I was in charge of the entire operation, from writing to editing to producing the newspaper, which was a daily newspaper.

The experience was invaluable. I quickly learned the essentials of newspaper production, and though the daily deadlines were stressful, it gave me a delicious taste for the world of journalism.

I’ve been hooked ever since.

Obviously I’ve gained more journalism knowledge since my time at Boys State, but I wouldn’t have found my passion and true calling if it wasn’t the experience I had that summer prior to my senior year of high school.

I love this program. I honestly feel it is one of the most valuable things I do with my time, but sometimes it is hard to explain why. I hope to spend time this week reflecting on that so I can provide a salient answer. However, that will not keep me from focusing on the Staters and ensuring they have as powerful an experience as I did.

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