LAWRENCEVILLE, NJ - A total of 920 students from around the state converged on Rider University for six days at the end of June to create a mythical 51st state — and a number of Bridgewater-Raritan High School students served as members of the city governments and administrations.
The program was the American Legion Jersey Boys State, a weeklong program that teaches young men about democracy and leadership by splitting them into 18 different cities, and having them create city governments, county governments and even elect a governor and state senator. The program is sponsored by the American Legion Department of New Jersey.
"They taught a lot about the political process, and they threw us in from the get-go immediately," said BRHS rising senior Kiran Sundar, who was in city 18. "We had to elect a mayor, city officials and things like that. We did the same at the county level."
"Then we built it all the way up through the freeholders, council, governor and senator," he added.
Also part of the program were BRHS rising seniors Alex Kochanik, in city 9; Abhinav Miriyala, in city 11; David Tasi, in city 16; and Michael Usewick, in city 16.
Miriyala said they held primary elections and then regular elections between the Federalist and Nationalist parties.
Sundar said that throughout the week, there were guest speakers talking about business, politics, entertainment and other careers, including Sen. Bob Menendez, Sen. Cory Booker and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. But all the while, Sundar said, they were building their cities and state.
Sundar himself ran for office in the Nationalist party, and won in the primary elections for his party's nomination to be a councilman. He lost in the general election, but ran again for freeholder later on — and unfortunately lost that election as well.
"This is certainly something I couldn't forget, it taught me to come out of my shell," he said. "It taught me the saying that if you fall seven times, you have to get up eight. If you lose, it doesn't mean you shouldn't run again."
Sundar said the cities were all paired up to form counties, and then they competed in different athletic competitions as counties.
Plus, Sundar said, they were appointed to certain jobs — he himself was chosen to serve as the city's tax assessor.
"We were given issues that our city and county had to solve," he said. "My city had to solve the issue of keeping businesses within the city, and also had to deal with an issue that concerned student-based test scores."
"They were all hypothetical situations," he added. "There were lots of things that were real about the situations, but we could have fun with it."
As tax assessor, Sundar had to evaluate all the properties, and figure out what to do in terms of taxing them. Of course, he said, there weren't actual properties to evaluate.
"That's where the creativity comes in," he said. "I had to make them up according to how the cities were. They were all rich people, so I decided since there really wasn't rich and poor, I kept the same tax rate everywhere."
Miriyala said he was the treasurer in his city, and his role was to keep track of finances for campaigns and city projects.
"The program taught me a lot about how government works and the importance of compromise to get things done," he said. "It was certainly an experience I will never forget as I met friends that I will keep in touch with for a lifetime. People in Boys State share a special bond as we are all proud to represent our country and our schools."
In addition to the government work, Sundar was chosen to be part of the boys state band, playing first alto saxophone. He said they played marches and pop tunes, and performed a few concerts for the other delegates and the families at the end of the program.
"The only requirement was you had to be part of your high school band," he said. "Playing with about 80 people from all over the state, it was a pretty big deal."
Sundar said he was nominated for the program by his counselor at the high school, and then he had to submit an application.
As for the elections among the different cities, Sundar said he learned the importance of sticking with your beliefs no matter what. When the candidates for governor were making speeches, he said, they stuck by their original opinions strongly no matter what the reactions were from the other students.
"The Nationalist candidate took a stance on guns that was unpopular and he stood by it, and people respected him for that," he said.
For Sundar, who is hoping to go into a career in business, he said he might run for office one day, depending on the issues in his town. But most importantly, he said, he learned a little more about local government.
"I understand what local officials do, and it gave me an idea of how government in Bridgewater works," he said. "We could pick whatever kind of government we wanted in our city, and it showed us what each form of government goes through, and how ideas are created."