Constitutional Convention

Youth Program Goes Back to Civics Basics

On Homecoming Saturday in White Chapel, c/SSG Alex Purdue ’18 approached Colonel Lawrence Willwerth ’66. “Sir, are you an instructor for the Youth Leadership Conference?” The retired colonel nodded. From his wallet, the cadet produced a business card with Colonel Willwerth’s name on it. He had attended the New England Youth Leadership Conference (NEYLC) at Norwich as a high school senior in spring 2014. That fall, he entered Norwich as a rook.

Colonel Willwerth, known informally as Larry, beamed—not because the cadet had recognized him, but because he had remembered the program. Willwerth took the card and laughed. “The phone number has changed. Does that tell you something?” What it told him is that Purdue had been carrying his card around for at least a few years. A simple gesture that spoke volumes. –J.E.D.

The Genesis

In 2009, retired Lt. Col. Michael “Mike” Jarvis prompted a partnership between Norwich University and the Military Order of the World Wars (MOWW) to offer high school students leadership experience. MOWW is a veterans organization comprising federally commissioned officers, of which Jarvis and retired Col. Lawrence Willwerth ’66 are members. The idea was to merge Norwich’s existing Leadership Challenge Weekend, established in 1997, with the MOWW-sponsored Youth Leadership Conference (YLC), previously conducted in Boston. Jarvis, of Barre, Vt., had served as an ROTC instructor at Norwich for three years during his active-duty days. He brought the merger idea to fellow MOWW member President Richard W. Schneider after the Boston YLC folded in 2007. “He was absolutely on board.”

The New England Youth Leadership Conference is offered four times per year at Norwich University. During the weekend-long event, high-school-aged students learn about civics and government, work with the U.S. Constitution, and engage in team-building exercises. Photo courtesy of NEYLC.

The New England Youth Leadership Conference is offered four times per year at Norwich University. During the weekend-long event, high-school-aged students learn about civics and government, work with the U.S. Constitution, and engage in team-building exercises. Photo courtesy of NEYLC.

“What began as an experiment soon grew into a successful program,” says Willwerth, who has been teaching in the YLC for the past five years.

The NEYLC is offered four times each academic year at Norwich: December, January, February, and March. “The purpose and goals of MOWW are to promote patriotism, civic responsibility, and leadership,” Willwerth says. “YLC meets these goals by providing high school students the chance to develop leadership skills through patriotic education.”

Courtesy of NEYLC.

Courtesy of NEYLC.

The students arrive Friday. “We feed them,” Willwerth smiles. “Then they take a 12-question quiz derived from the U.S. citizenship test. Most of them fail it.” The students receive instruction on leadership styles and traits of character and leadership. “Then we do the presentations, discussing the U.S. Constitution in the context of current foreign and domestic issues facing America. We give them a copy of the Constitution.”

On Saturday, student participants are tasked with making their own rulings on actual Supreme Court cases.

“What is interesting and inspiring to me is you see one or two of these kids going through it to check on what part of the Constitution applies to a problem,” Willwerth says. “It’s the tools. That’s experience.” Personal financial management is another heavily covered topic.

But it’s not all studying. Students learn water-survival skills from U.S. Marines and rock climbing at the Hurley Climbing Wall, instructed by members of the NU Rock Climbing Club. They tour the Sullivan Museum and campus bookstore.

Courtesy of NEYLC.

Courtesy of NEYLC.

Saturday night they take a lengthy citizenship exam to test their newfound knowledge. “It’s amazing,” Willwerth says. “From Friday when maybe 30 percent pass, we see 80 to 90 percent pass when they’re tested again. This program meets a vital need in the civic education of our youth.”

The program is presently led by a handful of MOWW volunteers and administered, on the Norwich side, by recruitment and leadership programs director, Lt. Col. Lee Hughes, with help from assistant program director, Ann Brechbuhl, and Samantha Bubar, assistant director of leadership. “NU provides the entire framework that allows the MOWW to present the citizenship and free-enterprise portion of the program,” Jarvis says.

Courtesy of NEYLC.

Courtesy of NEYLC.

The program stands on its own merit. But Willwerth and Jarvis have talked at length about its future. “We’re all Vietnam-era veterans. We’re getting pretty old,” Mike Jarvis half-quips.

Lawrence Willwerth echoes this. “We need to get younger people, younger alumni involved in the program.”

They’d also like to have more cadets involved in class presentations. At present, about 18 cadets participate as mentors, including Alex Purdue ’18.

“Being able to experience the Youth Leadership Conference from both sides, as a participant back in 2014 and then on staff from the cadet level when I came to Norwich, it’s definitely been worthwhile,” Purdue says. “As a citizen of the United States—you truly get to open your mind to what that can mean to you. It’s something that has a profound influence on future minds.”

Acknowledgments, Call to Action

The organizers thank MOWW members David Anderson ’65, Alan Johnston ’82, and Don Piroli ’83, who have already lent their support and participation to NEYLC. Colonel Willwerth ’66 challenges even more alumni to get involved. For the Norwich program, contact Lt. Col. Michael Jarvis at mjj1943@myfairpoint.net. Not in New England? There are 23 other YLC programs nationwide. Visit moww.org for schedules and locations.

Facts and Stats

• NEYLC costs each participant just $100; in some cases, New England moww chapters provide scholarships to reimburse that amount plus some travel expenses.
• NEYLC is the only YLC in the nation co-sponsored by a university.
• Since 2009, more than 700 high school students have participated in the YLC at Norwich.
• Prerequisites: Students must be of high school age, have a minimum gpa of 2.5, and submit a 500-word essay on “The Bill of Rights and My Responsibilities.”
• The program is sanctioned by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

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