VSO High School Leadership ProgramsUpdated: December 19, 2020
Each summer, Veteran Service Organization (VSO) leadership programs are available to thousands of high school students entering their senior year. These students attend leadership programs in their state with the goal of learning how the government operates and how to become actively engaged citizens.
Some of these students will go on to attend (and lead) military academies and Ivy League schools; become scientists, doctors, and world-renowned journalists; and even get elected to our nation’s highest office – President of the United States.
Before their fate was sealed, many of these students credit the attendance at that leadership program as the spark that ignited their fire for civil service. The programs? American Legion Boys State/Boys Nation and American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) Girls State/Girls Nation.
A Brief History
American Legion Boys State and ALA Girls State were founded in 1935 and 1937, respectively, are two of the most respected and selective educational programs for high school students. Held during the summer in each state for students entering their senior year of high school, the programs teach these teenagers that the United States is a republic guided by democratic principles and emphasizes how to become actively-engaged citizens – all before they are of voting age.
Though American Legion Boys State and ALA Girls State are held independently of each other, the outline of the programs are the same: For one week, at varying locations, students are divided into two mock parties – the Nationalists and the Federalists – and learn the structure of the city, county, and state governments. In the process, participants work together to elect government officials including a mayor, governor, and state legislators, and participate in legislative sessions, court proceedings, writing bills, and learn the fundamentals of government procedures.
After each state program has concluded, two students are selected to attend the national-level programs American Legion Boys Nation and ALA Girls Nation to represent their state as “senators” in Washington, D.C. There, the students take their experience a step further by learning how the federal government operates, complete with electing a president and vice president, plus participating in Senate sessions, holding party conventions, and writing and submitting bills and resolutions. The students also have the opportunity to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, meet with their real-life senators on Capitol Hill, and, most years, meet the current President of the United States at the White House.
Laying the Foundation for Military Service
The students selected to attend American Legion Boys State and ALA Girls State come from all backgrounds and walks of life. However, as a prestigious leadership conference, all students have proven themselves to be leaders in their communities and schools. For some, the exposure to veterans service organizations through the programs leads them to pursue careers in the military or deepens the desire for those who come to the conference already interested in serving our nation.
Military academies recognize the value of the training and knowledge gained at American Legion Boys State/Nation and ALA Girls State/Nation – so much so that points are awarded during the application process to program alumni. For example, the application form for the United States Military Academy (West Point) asks if the applicant has attended American Legion Boys State/Nation or ALA Girls State/Nation. According to an analysis of the selection process by RAND Corporation, participation in American Legion Boys Nation/ALA Girls Nation is worth 700 points and American Legion Boys State/ALA Girls State is worth 600 points towards determining an applicant’s Extracurricular Activities Level.
How to Apply
Applications for American Legion Boys State and ALA Girls State are typically accepted January-May before the summer programs begin in late-May and June. The application process varies by state. To learn more about the program in your state and for contact information for 2019, click here for American Legion Boys State and here for ALA Girls State websites.
It is important to note here that American Legion Boys State and ALA Girls State are held independently of each other, at separate locations and with separate application processes. Both state-level programs are also held independently of American Legion Boys Nation and ALA Girls Nation. Participation in the programs is privately funded by local Legion posts and Auxiliary units throughout the nation and is free of charge for participants.
- Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States
- General Wesley Clark, Retired U.S. Army General
- Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Former U.S. Congresswoman/Current President of Augustana University
- Keith Jackson, Former Professional NFL Athlete
- Cara Mund, Miss America 2018
- Jonathan Shapiro, Emmy Award-Winning Producer and Writer
- Jane Pauley, TV journalist
- Roger Ebert, Pulitzer Prize Award Winner
- Phil Jackson, Former NBA Coach
- U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, first woman to lead the USAF Academy
- Michael Jordan, Former NBA Player
- Neil Armstrong, NASA astronaut
- Justice Lorie S. Gildea, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice
- Tom Brokaw, NBC News Anchor
- Al Neuharth, Founder of USA TODAY
- Kristen Soltis Anderson, Named on TIME Magazine’s “30 Under 30 Changing the World.”
*This is by no means an exhaustive list.
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Kristen Baker-Geczy is a communications specialist, active duty military spouse, and former MWR marketing coordinator. She was also deployed to Southwest Asia as an Air Force contractor.