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Tar Heel Boys State creates miniature government at Catawba College

SALISBURY – Boys from across North Carolina are forming a new government in Rowan County.

They’re not hoping for immediate regime change. Instead, the group of campers are spending the week at Tar Heel Boys State. Contrary to the goal of most governments in the state to manage society at large, Boys State provides one service: an education on state government.

The long standing American Legion program has a version in every state but Hawaii. In North Carolina, it’s hosted by Catawba College. Over the course of the week, 99 high school boys from across the state are creating their own faux government from the ground up — complete with political parties, platforms and elections for state positions — all based on how the system works in this state.

They learn about the organization of municipalities, county and the state government. They elect officials ranging from mayors to governor.

When the boys arrived, they were assigned a political party at random — either the Federalists or the Nationalists. The boys have to work through differences within their ranks to create platforms, field candidates and get party members in office.

On Wednesday morning, the parties nominated gubernatorial candidates. Shortly after, Federalist candidate Gray Zhang and Nationalist candidate Auden White took to the stage in Catawba’s Chapel to debate contemporary issues, including gun control, taxes, the first amendment and the environment.

Tar Heel Boys State Director Christopher Byrd said staff may offer the students guidance on different topics, but the campers have free rein to create their platforms. 

The platforms were a mixed bag, with Zhang describing a Federalist agenda focused on running the government like a business and White describing a Nationalist party interested in bringing people in and finding compromise on divisive issues.

They kids have a packed schedule laid out for them every day to learn how state government works and implement their own. They start early in the morning, and the work stretches into the night. An abbreviated program will wrap up the week on Saturday.

Last year, there was no Boys State. The program was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Byrd said it accepted fewer students this year. Students sign up to attend and are interviewed by their local American Legion posts. Several Rowan County students are in the mix this week.

Salisbury High School rising senior Will Koontz said he wanted to get in the program because of his interest in politics, which was stoked by the 2020 general election. He wants to pursue a career in politics at some point

“I’ve learned a lot, a lot more than I ever expected to learn about politics,” Koontz said.

Koontz said acting out the role of government has given him a better understanding than civics classes

Ronnie Fennell, who will be a senior at North Rowan High in the fall, said he is participating because he wanted to understand politics more. Fennell said he was surprised how much he learned about voting and polling procedures.

“Some guys come in and they know all the aspects of government from the state level. Some guys come in and they don’t know much of anything,” Byrd said.

The goal is for the boys to leave with a better understanding of government. The process, while lacking stakes, takes on the drama of real politics as well. A candidate may campaign hard and think they have strong support to find out otherwise when votes are cast.

Byrd has been involved with organizing the program for the past 20 years. He said there is a change in the students between the time they arrive on Sunday and leave on Saturday. His favorite part of the experience is the camaraderie he sees in the students as they build their own government.

“They don’t necessarily have to agree, but at the end of the day you still have to have that common ground with each other,” Byrd said.

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