For civic minded students, there is a little-known opportunity to spend a week at a Massachusetts college in June of their eleventh grade year for no cost.
Boys and Girls State is a week of immersion into the nuts and bolts of politics and policy by participating in mock municipal and state governments made up of pretend political parties. Run by the American Legion, it is locally sponsored by Fitchburg Post 10, and is open to any high school junior.
Students must be nominated by a member of their school faculty or staff. Each applicant must submit a school transcript and an essay. Costs are paid by sponsorship.
Two participants each from Boys and Girls State are selected to attend Boys and Girls Nation representing Massachusetts, where they travel to Washington, DC for a mock federal government and field trips in July.
These programs lead to significant career and personal development opportunities, said Richard Vaughn, Post 10’s Youth Chairman who facilitates the program in Fitchburg and also mentors some of the students.
“Since 2009 I have helped about 360 high school juniors get sponsored for these programs and have come to realize that they are the single most important factor in creating opportunities,” Vaughn said.
Alumni from Girls and Boys State — a large number of whom have gone on to Nation or to being counselors at State — have been accepted to a wide variety of colleges and internships, were selected as scholars, and have a range of high-level employment. They include the White House and Fulbright scholarships, acceptance to Harvard and Stanford, and other leadership positions. Vaughn said many of them went to top universities on full scholarships.
Vaughn, a Vietnam veteran who calls himself “the reluctant lieutenant”, was initially wary of taking on facilitating Boys and Girls State for civically-inclined area teens. He thought the program, which at the time was dormant in the Fitchburg and Wachusett region, “might look good on a resume” but found that the “benefits are far more than expected.”
“It is a program that opens doors and inspires students to get involved,” he said.
In fact, Vaughn’s involvement in mentorship via the schools (he previously worked as a teacher at Fitchburg High School and got juniors involved there) and in the promotion of Boys and Girls State predates his involvement with Post 10 — something he was also reluctant to join in 2015 given its military connections.
Now, as youth chairman, he continues to promote and recruit for the programs, nominations, and sponsor development while also continuing to mentor for free.
Since 2012, two State attendees Vaughn has mentored have been selected as part of the top 100 who get to attend Boys and Girls Nation.
While it’s against American Legion rules to ask for demographics, Vaughn estimates that participants are around 50% minorities each year.
Students in recent years have come from Fitchburg, Leominster, Westminster, Shirley, and others. Although Vaughn mentors more, Post 10 only sponsors two kids a year; Vaughn said other sponsorship is a “community effort”, as students (and their parents) cannot self-sponsor. Local sponsors have included Fitchburg Youth Soccer, Gear Up, and United Way Youth Ventures as well as past alumni and their parents.
Those kids who go — they’re forever called “Citizens” afterward — all say similar things about their experiences. They “make friends for life” because they’re finally around other enterprising and civic peers who are driven to make a difference in the world for the “best week ever”, preparing them to be strong advocates in all areas of their lives.
“Attending Girls State was one of the best decisions I have made in my life,” said Abigail Kirrane of Lunenburg, a Girls State 2021 alumnus who is now at Norwich University with an ROTC Marine full scholarship. She credits it for introducing her to “empowering” people and raising her confidence, “giving me more hope for the future.”
The 2023 Boys and Girls State will take place June 17 through June 23 at Stonehill College in Easton. Essays are due in April and completed applications are due by mid-May.
Optimally, Vaughn would like to see Boys and Girls State do a “village concept” of 450 boys and 350 girls (eventually increased to 450) with waitlisted replacements, to ensure the most teens get to participate, and wants the process to start at the beginning of the school year.
Other opportunities via the American Legion start in January, and Vaughn mentors students year-round. For the people he mentors, Vaughn has an open-door policy where they are permanently able to contact him for advice, information, as a reference, or whatever they need — even charity donations for causes they’re fundraising for.