I’m going to start this post with a little introduction. In 2014 I was the County Counselor of Spafford and during that year there was some concern that we were a few Counselors short in the program. I was short a city counselor and after meeting my junior counselor I thought what the heck, let’s give him a city and see what he can do. He did not disappoint. Here is his story.
It was June 2014; I had no idea what journey I was about to embark on, and little did I know that this journey would change my life. I will forever be grateful to my high school Student Government advisor, Mrs. Julie Muskopf, and the American Legion Post #362 for the tremendous opportunity to represent our community at New York’s Boys’ State. The NYS American Legion Boys’ State is a distinguished program that is truly designed to take each individual participant on a journey of personal and professional growth.
From the moment I stepped off the bus in the Cherry Valley, I was challenged mentally, physically, and professionally. In all honesty, I did not have too much prior knowledge on the political process, and I was interested in learning more about American institutions and ideals. I was in no way prepared or expecting how quickly I would be immersed in the program.
I was honored to be elected by my peers from the City of Love as Mayor of our City on the first night. From that moment, I was encouraged by my fellow Boys’ State citizens, counselors, and marine mentor to step up and be a leader that could be counted on. By no means was the journey a smooth one. Throughout the week our City experienced numerous tests, but those challenges encouraged us to come together, put our differences aside, and by the end of the week we learned what it truly meant to work as one unit.
Attending Boys’ State provided me one of the first opportunities to explore various political viewpoints, understand the importance of listening while leading, and learn to appreciate the value of serving a community. Although I found success while running for various offices such as Mayor, I think some of the greatest lessons I learned during the week came when I was not elected to a position. I leaned on my fellow participants, my roommate, and my Counselor and I am proud that many of us are still in contact with one another today.
Following graduation from Boys’ State, I returned to my hometown of Elma, New York with a newfound interest in public service and the political process. I scheduled meetings with many local elected officials to ask questions and learn from them about their journeys in public service. These experiences offered me the opportunity to explore various levels of government and the role that government can play in making a difference in the lives of others.
A major lesson that I took with me from my experience at Boys’ State was the importance of being involved. This could be involvement by voting, being informed, or even running for office. The bottom line was that we needed young people involved in the conversations that were shaping the future.
Following my first year of college at the University at Buffalo, where I studied Political Science, Legal Studies, and Education Policy, I launched a successful campaign to become the youngest elected Board of Education member in my local school district’s history. Thankfully, my colleagues on the board have always accepted me as one of their own and we have worked together these past four years to bring about improved changes to our District.
I think the primary challenge that I have had to overcome during these past four years as an elected member of the School Board is my age, I was only eighteen years old when I was first elected. The perception of youth and how some people may not respect me as an equal member of the School Board has challenged me. There is a pressure of always having to prove one’s self in a way that other board members do not, and it stems from being young and the perception that comes with that. Most people assume that with age comes knowledge or wisdom, which may be true, but they are not considering that while my experiences may differ from theirs, they are still just as important. However, when faced with criticism or with a challenge, I always resolve back to the leadership lessons that I first learned at Boys’ State.
I reached out to the New York Boys’ State Program Director, David O’Brien in June 2016 to provide him an update on everything that had transpired since my experience at Boys’ State in 2014 and see how I could volunteer and give back to the program that provided me with so much.
Mr. O’Brien invited me to be a Jr. Counselor for the upcoming class of Boys’ State citizens. I was thrilled to be returning to Morrisville to volunteer for the week and help guide these young men on their own journey. However, upon my arrival I was informed that one of the City counselors was unable to make it and with short notice I was asked by the County Counselor, Mr. Scott Toth, to step up and be a City Counselor for the week.
I quickly gained the responsibility of overseeing 30 participants and was expected to help guide each of these young men in having a successful, productive, and memorable experience at Boys’ State. I brought a different perspective to this position as someone who had recently experienced the program and as a young person who had been elected to public office.
We were amid the 2016 Presidential election, and there was plenty of political discussions to be had. I encouraged each participant to take full advantage of the opportunity and the platform to participate in one of the most distinguished programs for young men in New York State. I challenged them to learn from each other and to step out of their comfort zones. It was my hope that each participant took part in every opportunity and that at the end of the week, they left Morrisville with no regrets.
It was just as rewarding to volunteer as a Counselor as it was taking part in the program back in 2014. I was proud to watch each of the young men grow throughout the week and carve their own path to finding success. The first day everyone is missing home and their cell phones, and by the end of the week each participant understands just how valuable it was to disconnect from social media for a few days. It was an honor to return to be a City Counselor at Boys’ State in 2017 and 2018. The exciting part for me was to see how each experience was different due to the issues that our country was facing and yet still provided the same rewarding conversations, experiences, and lessons.
Since 2014, I have been able to experience things that I only could have imagined as a junior in high school. I owe these possibilities to the NYS Boys’ State program, for sparking the initial interest in government and public service. If it wasn’t for the dedicated staff and volunteers with the American Legion Boys’ State, I would have never been inspired to run for a seat on my local school District’s Board of Education, been elected President of the Undergraduate Student Association at the University at Buffalo where I had the honor of introducing both former Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on campus, and now live in Washington D.C. where I intern in the United States Senate and am pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Administration with a concentration on education policy at the George Washington University.
I know that these are difficult and unprecedented times that we are living through now and I have no doubt that we can overcome these challenges that our nation faces. Although NY Boys’ State is on pause this year, I look forward to the day where I can once again return to the Boys’ State program and be inspired by the young leaders that will shape our future.
Gunnar, Thanks for your story. That is the reason I stayed a Counselor for 38 years!
Program Director (retired)
American Legion Boys’ State of New York