Knoxville high schooler embraces civic responsibility and family tradition at national program

·4 min read
Webb senior John Tolsma will be one of two high school students representing Tennessee this summer at the Boys Nation program in Washington, D.C.
Webb senior John Tolsma will be one of two high school students representing Tennessee this summer at the Boys Nation program in Washington, D.C.

In late May, John Tolsma was wrapping up his junior year at Webb School of Knoxville, studying for exams and celebrating his 18th birthday.

One week after his birthday, he and a few hundred young men were forming their own mock government and in the middle of a serious political campaign.

Inside the classrooms of Tennessee Tech University, Tolsma quickly climbed the ranks from a mere citizen of the mock city of Maddux to chairman of the newly organized Jacksonian Party, endorsing his friend and gubernatorial candidate Quinton Ding to become the next governor of Boys State in Tennessee.

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Tolsma is just one of 350 young men selected to participate in the Tennessee American Legion Boys State program hosted at Tennessee Tech. The event brings together high school students and teaches them about government, policy, and civic responsibility through mock legislative sessions, court proceedings, elections, and more.

"To actually be able to go to a mock state government for a week is so incredible," Tolsma said in an exclusive interview with Knox News. "It's such a cool experience."

And in a few weeks, Tolsma will be one of two high school students representing Tennessee at the Boys Nation program in Washington, D.C. this summer and competing for national "offices," including the president.

Building relationships

Tolsma has been hearing about the program since he started high school. His mother, grandmother, grandfather, aunts, and uncles have all gone through the Boys State and Girls State programs.

But Tolsma didn't have any peers to ask about the experience. The program paused in 2020 and happened virtually in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I didn't really know what it was going to be like," Tolsma said. "But my granddad told me, 'Listen, don't pass this up because the relationships you're going to build at Boys State and some of the people that you will (meet) you will never forget in your life.'"

Now, he can't stop talking about his experience. From getting up at the crack of dawn to building his city's government from the ground up to passing bills in a mock state legislature, Tolsma went from knowing nothing about the program to recruiting students for next year.

"I've been telling all my buddies who are rising juniors next year you 100% should take advantage of this," Tolsma said. "I didn't really know what it was. Now I do, and you're going to want to meet these people and have a blast."

And Tolsma will experience a similar program all over again at the Boys Nation event in Washington. He'll be traveling in mid-July to join nearly 100 other state delegates from Boys State programs across the nation. He'll attend lectures, visit federal agencies and meet with elected officials.

Similar to Boys State, Tolsma will be work with young men across the political spectrum in a mock legislative body. They'll caucus at the beginning of the session, organize into committees and hear bills.

"It was invaluable to learn how to look at all types of issues and engage in debate and healthy discussion," Tolsma's mother, Lee Ann Furrow, said. She attended Girls State and Girls Nation in 1989.

"It really made me appreciate the process our country has established," she said.

John Tolsma describes himself as a "big energy guy."
John Tolsma describes himself as a "big energy guy."

Fostering civil discourse

Tolsma describes himself as a "big energy guy." And when you're putting a lot of energy into a newly formed government and political party in the span of a week, not everyone is going to agree with your opinions or decisions.

"There were definitely people who disagreed with me, whether it was politically or thinking that I bring too much energy to the table," Tolsma said.

But what Tolsma appreciated at Boys State and hopes to get more of at Boys Nation is the chance to talk about those differences without retaliation.

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"There was a kid on our city basketball team who had a different opinion than I did," Tolsma said. "We just talked about it and then we went on play basketball and had a fantastic week."

In a world of great political tension and little compromise, those moments of civil discourse among peers is what gives Tolsma hope for the future.

"We have a really good future with people like this, and I'm super excited just to see more people who were involved in politics and wanting to learn about it so that maybe one day they can be our future senators and congressmen," Tolsma said. "It's really exciting to see people wanting to take the initiative and lead our country in the future."

Becca Wright: Higher education reporter at Knox News
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Knoxville high schooler to represent Tennessee at Boys Nation program