BOURBONNAIS — We all have our own neuroses about appearing on camera for virtual meetings.
Thomas Musgrave, a senior at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, had one such thought come to mind when he learned he was accepted for the United States Senate Youth program: “I was just thinking, the president of the United States is going to see the back wall of my bedroom. It’s crazy.”
Musgrave, 17, of Bourbonnais, was one of two students selected from Illinois to be part of the annual program, which comes with a $10,000 college scholarship and, typically, a trip to Washington, D.C., for a week of educational activities called “Washington Week.”
With his inclusion in the 2021 program, Musgrave is set to take part in virtual meetings with Illinois’ U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and President Joe Biden.
“I will probably ask them how they got to where they are,” he said. “They are all very successful people in politics, and that’s kind of where I want to be in the future.”
The program is online this year because of the pandemic, but Musgrave did not sound too disappointed.
“It would have been really cool to go to the White House and stuff, but I still think the opportunity is awesome,” he said. “It’s still a valuable experience and reward that I can use throughout my life.”
BBCHS Principal Brian Wright said Musgrave is one of those special types of students that comes along every so often who is “well-rounded, talented and an even better human being.”
“There are not too many accomplishments or awards which allow the general public the access that Thomas will have,” Wright said. “He has worked extremely hard to place himself in the position for this honor, and he is deserving of all the accolades associated with this award.”
The United States Senate Youth program, established in 1962, is designed for “outstanding high school students” interested in pursuing careers in public service, according to its website. Two students from each state are selected to attend. The 59th annual program will be from March 14 to 18.
Musgrave discovered the program while searching for scholarships this summer. He submitted an essay about his experience and interest in government and was selected to participate in a policy debate with 11 other students in December.
They were asked questions ranging from “How do you think our state is doing in COVID-19 relief?” to “How can we improve our electoral system?”
The Illinois State Board of Education selected two winners of the debate.
Musgrave said he enjoyed hearing the perspectives of other students from around the state, and he also looks forward to hearing the perspectives of the government officials in March.
In a broader sense, he is interested in learning how to use the legislative process to solve issues people care about in society.
“Meeting the president and meeting senators is kind of an unmatched opportunity to get the experience necessary to make tangible change,” he said.
Musgrave is still in the college application process; he’s put feelers out for at least 15 schools, including big names like Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame and Northwestern.
He wants to work as a criminal defense lawyer, with particular interest in proactively preventing wrongful convictions. He is also hopeful that running for office will be in the cards some day.
“Running for anywhere from state rep all the way up to president is definitely not out of the question,” Musgrave said. “We’ll just see where the road takes me.”
Musgrave was also named a semi-finalist by the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation for its 2021 scholarship; he was part of a small group narrowed down from nearly 100,000 applicants around the country. Unfortunately, he stopped short of advancing to the next round for the $20,000 prize.
He has kept a positive attitude, though.
His advice to peers seeking scholarships or other opportunities would be to “take risks when you’re pursuing something you love.”
“I know a lot of people might not apply to these scholarship things because they think they might not get it,” he said. “I did, too, and I’ve thrown my name at a lot of scholarships and programs like this to get rejected, but just the one time being accepted can make all the difference.”
He also has advice for getting involved in the political process: advocate for causes and reach out to state representatives and senators.
“Don’t be afraid to call or write an email,” he said. “You never know what that one call can result in toward real political change.”
BBCHS teacher Sara Youssef said Musgrave approached her as a sophomore and asked to join Youth and Government, which she sponsors at the school.
The Illinois Youth and Government program has statewide competitions and several mock government roles students can participate in.
Musgrave was interested in the attorney role, which requires students to present an oral argument in front of mock justices from the entire state.
Youssef was hesitant to allow Musgrave to participate as an underclassman because of the heavy workload and time commitment.
“He gracefully accepted the challenge and exceeded my expectations,” she said. “Thomas caught on so quickly as a sophomore.”
Musgrave’s writing as a sophomore was on par with that of a first-year college law student, she noted.
“I vividly remember him completing his first oral argument as a sophomore, and immediately [he] said, ‘I am ready for next year,’” Youssef recalled.
In his junior year, Musgrave was elected Youth and Government Chief Justice, marking the first time a BBCHS student won a statewide election in the program since 1979.
Musgrave is also senior class president, serves as a student representative for the BBCHS School Board, participates in his school’s speech team and orchestra, as well as the Illinois Music Education Association All-State Orchestra.