Twelfth-grader Aravind Byju gained a unique insight on the American government through attending Boys State and Boys Nation, American Legion programs that connect students across the country in an effort to provide insight into how the government works. After being one of two representatives selected from Boys State in June, Byju went on to represent Florida at the 69th American Legion Boys Nation, which took place July 17 to July 24 in Arlington, VA.
Byju introduced a bill at Boys Nation, with its main goal being “to comprehensively expand the Federal Pell Grant to cover tuition coasts at community colleges in order to incre
ase graduation rates and make higher education attainable for all Americans.” The full bill can be found here.
In addition to writing their own bills, delegates toured various government sites, including the Pentagon and the White House.
Elections took place July 21, and with a vote of 50 to 46 with two abstentions, Byju was named president of Boys Nation.
Byju first got involved with the program through hearing about it from his brother, alumnus Arjun Byju and an attendee from the previous year, alumnus Manish Narasimman. After applying, both he and twelfth-grader Cullen Marshall were selected from Pine View to attend Boys State. Following is a Q/A with Byju concerning his experience in the program.
The Torch (T): What prepared you the most for the program?
Byju: I’d say two things. Definitely speech and debate — I do PFD (Public Forum Debate), which is … all current events, so I have to stay up-to-date with current events. It’s great for public speaking. Actually, at Boys Nation we had a presidential candidate debate and I got thrown topics like ISIS and all sorts of constitutional things, and a lot of them had been topics from debate so I was really fortunate to be able to … have a lot of general knowledge on those kinds of things.
And I would say the second thing that probably prepared me better for the whole program would be the lovely Ms. Patricia Regan. I think our class, APUSH, was pretty sweet this year … It was a good introduction to civics and everything about government because you have to know a lot about the government — the different roles, the different branches, things like that — but also in that class we did a lot of discussion and debate and current events and policy and all those things came in handy.
Also I’d say House of Cards, that kind of came in handy for the political wheeling and dealing. I did have to kill a few people…
T: What was your biggest source of support throughout this?
Byju: I’d have to say definitely my family. My brother, mom, dad, my little sister were great throughout it. Really my parents, they were really supportive throughout the whole thing … They’re the only reason I called at the end of the night, they picked up at, like, one in the morning before I went to bed. I could vent to them in peace about everyone else there and they gave some good advice about making friends, making alliances with people. They definitely were way up there for being really supportive. I couldn’t have done any of this without them … and the entire Pine View community I think does a great job. I never really noticed before but you get a lot of pride being able to say you go to Pine View. It blows most people away when I get to tell them I’ve been going to the same school for 11 years and it’s an outdoor college campus and we get to walk around and there’s sometimes gators on our campus … Just fun stuff like that, I think a lot of us take it for granted, this community we’re in which is pretty sweet.
T: How did you come up with the idea for the bill [regarding education]?
Byju: We actually had a debate topic in February… about America’s college promise, which is Obama’s two-year free community college plan and that was announced in his State of the Union address in January. I had a lot of research about that when I was sitting down for a bill, and the cool thing about all the actual bills, or laws, we pass at Boys Nation get passed on to the President himself. So that means it’s got to pass through the Boys’ State Senate, about 20 bills pass through the Senate out of the 100 or so and then the President [of Boys’ State] has to sign it into law … So I was really thinking of something feasible for a bill but also not too far-fetched.
I know America’s College Promise is really Obama’s personal project that he’s been working on a lot and it had a lot of resistance, so this is really a modification of it. It goes through Pell Grants and it’s kind of to bump out some kinks that I think are in the original project, and obviously the original proposal is really general at this point, but I think this would be a really cool starting point for any real Senate bill.
It definitely came down to my debate partner, Sho Szczepaniuk and our debate coach Alex Weiner. They helped me out with it, with some work. Also, for Moody’s Mega Math [Challenge] … this year that was all about college — college education, whether it’s worth it, whether it’s worth the cost. We actually got to do all the studies ourselves, so all the numbers, what’s your ROI, return on investment, on college, things like that. I definitely think education is a passion of mine… because I think we have a huge problem … So that’s kind of been an interest of mine, education policy.
T: What was it like to be elected as the president of all of the senators there?
Byju: It was pretty cool. Not that it hasn’t hit, but I feel like it’s kind of been overblown. I mean, I did work my butt off, and I think it was definitely one of the … toughest things I’ve ever done. I think it’s not a personal accomplishment for me that much — you definitely form a lot of close political alliances, as well as I made a lot of really good friends there, kids from all over the country… kids that you never meet before. It blows you away at how smart some of these kids are. It really is humbling because everyone there is class president, captain of whatever team and did this – one guy was on CNN, who I was running against, crazy stuff like that. So definitely you meet some amazing people and they help you so much … It came down really to the wire for me, I won by, like, four votes … So there’s a moment when I got 50 votes and everyone starts going crazy and things like that and that’s when I was like,‘Woah. It happened.’ … Definitely a surreal experience.
T: You mentioned the different places you got to visit and activities you got to do. What would you say was your favorite part of the program?
Byju: That’s a tough question. We got to do a lot of awesome things. We got to tour the White House a little bit, but besides that we got to see Arlington National Cemetery, which was really hallowed grounds, but that was really a cool experience. The Legion has a lot of emphasis on our veterans and those who fought and died for our country, but there’s just a moment when you step into Arlington and you see the rows and rows of white tombstones and it’s just a drop in the bucket of all the people who’ve died for this country, so Arlington is definitely up there.
But if I had to say, the best moment was at the White House, and it wasn’t actually shaking Obama’s hand, that was pretty sweet but I was starstruck … I would honestly think it’s a dream … But there’s a moment where we were walking around in the East Wing, and it wasn’t really a formal tour, we were all just ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ around there … and I look to my left and it’s the famous portrait of JFK where he has his arms crossed and he’s kind of looking down. And it’s this huge painting, and I just turn to my left … and I was like ‘Wow you see that painting all the time,’ and then it kind of hit me — ‘wow, that’s the painting of JFK’ … and that hit me because JFK has been like a role model to me. He’s one of the greatest Americans … that really humanized the whole thing… Meeting Barack Obama, shaking his hand, that kind of brought it to the human level that these are just human beings that do what we put them up on the pedestal to do. We criticize them and we hate on them and we make fun of them but they’re just like you and I.
T: I know you said you were starstruck, but when you did meet President Obama and got to shake his hand, what was going through your head at the time?
Byju: Definitely his hands are very soft. It was like shaking hands with a cloud. That was the first thought. And the second thought was don’t pee myself — that may have been first. But I think it was kind of the whole, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Obama, oh my gosh, it’s Obama,’ … It was kind of, again, the whole humanizing experience. You see him on TV, but you’re shaking his hand, he’s talking to you and he’s cracking jokes and things like that, asking you where you’re from, what’s going on it’s then that you realize, again, this isn’t just another person. And he talked a lot about his personal experience … and he said a lot of the struggles he came through. I guess it just makes the whole presidency and a lot of these positions that we kind of put out there I think a little more attainable. I think for a lot of us who have big ambition it’s kind of more realistic now.
T: What advice would you give to future Boys State and Boys Nation senators?
Byju: My advice would be, to Boys State and Boys Nation senators, try to cherish every single second. Because the seconds you spend hating people or the seconds you spend jealous or angry you didn’t win something, which I did spend a lot of time at Boys State and Boys Nation doing, those are seconds wasted. You don’t remember those seconds in the long run, you remember the seconds joking around, talking to people, meeting fantastic kids. I think really, it’s definitely a program that you do get out of it what you put into it. So if you keep going with the mentality that, ‘I’m about to meet what could possibly be the 97 smartest kids in the nation, but I shouldn’t be trying to measure myself up against them or trying to beat them or come in with the idea that my goal is to win this or get that position’ … This is an experience that will change your life, but only if you allow it to. So cherish every second.