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In 1994, Branford High School (BHS) AP history teacher Jim Petela founded BHS Model Congress (BHSMC). During this, its 20th year, more than 130 BHSMC students in grades 9 to 12 studied, prepared, and traveled to compete in Ivy League settings and conferences heavy with private school teams.
Over the years, BHSMC has earned a reputation as a worthy competitor and a statewide dominating presence, with many gavels won by students who have gone on to great success. As the gavel falls on the 2013-'14 session, BHSMC "founding father" Petela thanked his group, and especially this year's presidents, for carrying on a legacy of excellence.
But they thank him, as well.
"You really have to credit Mr. Petela for being able to sustain a wonderful club for 20 years, and I'm sure many more to come," said Lianne Yun, one of 10 BHSMC presidents this year. "There's also the fundraising and the financial aid he gives his students. He accommodates us in so many ways. Hopefully this year, we were able to give some of the support he's given us over the years, back to him."
In the past 20 years, more than 2,300 students have participated in BHSMC, winning 400 awards by attending more than 100 conferences and related events (including major conferences at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Princeton Moot Court). BHSMC has given 500 scholarships and gathered 1,000 sponsors.
BHSMC students learn about America's system of government in-depth, while also experiencing the culture of top-notch colleges and developing personal skills, socials skills, confidence, and other abilities.
Because it's a club, BHSMC is entirely self-funded-but it's not cheap. Student travel costs average $600 per student per East Coast event. To help public school students obtain a stellar experience usually reserved for the private school set, Petela shepherds donations and contributions and motivates students to pitch in with fundraising efforts to build the scholarship program.
A BHS (Class of '81) and Yale University alumnus who earned many accolades during his BHS and Yale basketball careers, Petela was inducted into the BHS Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. For his BHSMC efforts, Petela was named to the Branford Education Hall of Fame in 2011.
"I think he does more for the kids in this school than any other educator in the entire district," said 2014 president Jack Bishop. "If you can't afford a conference, he will subsidize it, because he knows how much kids get out of this. He cares, as an educator, about the wellbeing and the future success of the students who pass through here."
President Adam Jarvie agreed, saying, "over the 20 years he's done it, he has probably changed hundreds of people-at least indirectly. Seeing him work is really amazing."
BHSMC presidents have to earn their way to their position and are relied upon by Petela not only to lead, but also to teach and mentor their peers. The BHSMC 2014 presidents are Yun, Bishop, Jarvie, Nate Barton, Pat Laske, Sophie Bysiewicz, Griffin Sandler, Ashvin Pradhan-Shenoy, Christina Smith, and Henry Jin.
The presidents can list many benefits they've personally gained from BHSMC: building confidence, developing research skills, honing debating abilities, embracing public speaking, becoming a constructive listener, collaborating, and being a fierce, yet fair, competitor.
"It takes a lot of confidence to speak, because you know that at least half the group is against you" at each competition, said Yun.
"It gives you a lot of life skills," added Bysiewicz. "It really helped me in other aspects of my life, even just talking to people. I've developed really good communication skills, which I think is really important."
"I've learned more going to Model Congress than I have in school," said Smith. "I've also met people in school I wouldn't have otherwise met."
Pradhan-Shenoy said he found his voice through BHSMC.
"After you speak in front of a crowd of 100 people or more, talking in front of class of 20 people is easy," he said.
Laske said he's become a better listener.
"Normally what a person will do is they have their opinion and they'll stick with their opinion," said Laske. "With Model Congress, you learn to listen to other people analytically. You listen to their points and you can reevaluate your own ideas."
Even when an argument is lost, the opportunity to learn isn't, added Bishop.
"Acknowledge their point and then take it to try and better yourself the next time you have to speak about that topic," Bishop said.
The presidents also expressed appreciation for the hard work put in by all BHSMC members this year.
"I remember the first meeting, there were a lot of freshman and we had to basically tell them what Model Congress is about, which isn't easy to do, and then we went right into small debates about major issues and they started debating right off the bat," said Jarvie. "It's a good class of kids and I know they're going to be a good group as they get older."
Speaking of classes, as Laske points out, BHSMC members study on their own each week, not during school.
"For a lot of the schools we go up against, this is a class for them and they get credit," said Laske. "We have maybe one or two meetings at night for an hour or an hour and a half. It's not required of us. We just come because we love to do it."
Barton participated in Model Congress at Foote School. He joined BHSMC as a sophomore and found an exceptional difference.
"This is definitely a much more serious program," said Barton. "You get to spend a lot more time on each bill and there's more of a platform for debate. People take things here a lot more seriously."
As for next year's presidents, Smith cautions, "Don't take it for granted, it will be over fast!"
Asked how their BHSMC experience will serve them in the future, Bishop said the possibilities are endless.
"On our D.C. trip this year we encountered two (former BHSMC) kids who work in the Senate as press secretaries," said Bishop. "That's a testament to how valuable this program truly is, not only the school, but to everyone in it…The skill of rhetoric is the most valuable thing anyone can ever learn. It can bring you very far in life."
To learn more about BHSMC, visit www.bhsmodelcongress.org.