Columbus teen one of two from Georgia in United States Senate Youth Program

Student critical of district’s National School Walkout alternative: ‘We are not going away’

In this file video, Columbus High School junior Patrick Chappel, 16, explains why he wasn't satisfied with the Muscogee County School District's response to criticism of its video conference with state legislators.
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In this file video, Columbus High School junior Patrick Chappel, 16, explains why he wasn't satisfied with the Muscogee County School District's response to criticism of its video conference with state legislators.

A Columbus teenager is one of two Georgia high school students selected to receive a $10,000 college scholarship and represent the state in a national program that teaches young leaders about politics and inspires them to work in public service.

Patrick Chappel, a Columbus High School senior, is among the 104 students in the 2019 United States Senate Youth Program. Each state has two representatives, plus two from the District of Columbia and two from U.S. Department of Defense schools.

In the program’s 57-year history, Patrick is only the sixth delegate from the Muscogee County School District and the first in 25 years.

“I was shocked because I had been looking at this program since freshman year,” Patrick said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “It’s kind of the culmination of all these things that a political nerd like me could like.”

Patrick is chairman of the High School Democrats of Georgia, president of the Muscogee County Young Democrats and received the Muscogee County Democratic Committee’s Youth Leadership Award. As president of the Columbus High School Young Democrats, he grew the membership from five to 70 and registered more than 100 students to vote.

Patrick’s “dedication to his beliefs, his work ethic and his desire to help others” have impressed Columbus High AP macroeconomics teacher Ken Broda, in his 27th year as an educator.

Broda called Patrick “probably the most politically active student I have ever taught, and I have taught a student that was a delegate to the 2016 national GOP convention (Tanner Goldsmith) and another that was an alternate to the 2016 national DRC convention (David Smith).”

In addition to the scholarship, USSYP delegates attend a weeklong conference in Washington, D.C., (March 2-9 this year), where they meet senators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives, congressional staff, a Supreme Court justice, leaders of federal agencies, an ambassador to the United States and senior reporters who cover national politics.

“I’ve been kind of enamored with D.C. and our government for so long,” he said. “… So getting to be a part of that, it’s really mind-blowing for me.”

USSYP delegates also meet the president.

“Even though I have my reservations about our current president,” Patrick said, “I’m excited about getting to see the presidency itself, the idea of the office, getting to tour the White House is something I can’t give up.”

If he has the chance, Patrick said, he would ask President Donald Trump, “How do you believe the office of the president can be used to bridge the divide between the two parties? I really think that’s the biggest issue at this point, because both sides see everything in terms of politics and nothing in terms of government.”

And he would tell the president, “Remember the young people. . . . Young people have issues that are important to them, whether it’s climate change or college affordability, and I think it’s time for our elected representatives to start recognizing that we can have a voice.”

But he is most looking forward to meeting a member of the Supreme Court and receiving his scholarship in the well of the Senate.

“I’ve watched the Senate for so long, from filibusters to budget bills,” he said. “I mean, I know every detail of the Senate chamber, down to the blue carpet, so getting to be there, it’s so surreal. … That’s such an exciting moment for me.”

Patrick has been a political junkie as long as he can remember. His mother, Patty Chappel, the administrative assistant in the History and Geography Department at Columbus State University, brought him into her voting booth for every election since the 2002 midterms, when he was a 1-year-old.

“The idea that voting is important has been integral to my education from my mother,” he said.

His father, James Chappel, also works at CSU, as a technology integration design architect. Patrick’s paternal grandfather, Jim Chappel was an English professor at CSU.

“He would always talk to me, even at the ages of 6 or 7, as an adult, as an intellectual, and ask me about policies,” Patrick said.

The first recording Patrick downloaded on the iPod he got in third grade was President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address. He watches C-SPAN and Senate livestreams for fun.

Patrick worked as a volunteer on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Her defeat “really was hard for me,” he said, “because I was idealistic. . . . I went through a period where I was saying, ‘Well, maybe politics isn’t right for me.’”

Then he attended the Women’s March in Washington and recharged his activism.

“I just kind of felt like even though I may have lost, I still found something that was meaningful to me, and I wanted to keep going,” he said.

So he worked as a volunteer on Stacey Abrams’ 2018 campaign in the Georgia governor’s race. Although he again was on the losing side, he reacted with more optimism.

“It wasn’t the outcome we were hoping for, but I wasn’t as dejected or sad,” he said. “I recognized that every election I am working on is a chance to change my community. Whether we win or not, we have an impact. And I think that’s what has taken me some time to learn. But once I have learned it, I think it’s just kind of been a path toward success.”

That path has led to the USSYP.

He read about the program on the Georgia Department of Education’s website, as well as on Sen. Johnny Isakson’s website, but he didn’t apply until September, when he saw an email blast to Columbus High students from guidance director Christopher Porch.

Patrick applied and was chosen as one of the four finalists who took a government and civics test to determine the school’s nominee. After submitting another application, he was selected as the district’s winner. At the state level, he took another government and civics test, which included essays on Georgia’s water dispute with Florida and the voting access controversy in Randolph County, a true/false quiz about American history and matching quotes with public officials. Then he was selected for the state finalist interviews with an official at the Georgia Department of Education.

“It’s a long process,” Patrick said, “but I think it was well worth it.”

The USSYP alumni includes current senators Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former presidential advisers Mack McLarty and Karl Rove.

“Now, I’m joining that history,” Patrick said. “I hope to maybe see my name on the distinguished alumni list at some point.”

Patrick plans to major in political science and become a civil rights lawyer. He has been accepted into the University of Georgia, but he is waiting to hear back from Yale and Georgetown.

“I want to impact change on a large scale,” he said, “and I think the best way to do that is through the legal avenue.”

Ultimately, he wants to be president of the United States. He already is targeting the 2048 election. Before that, he hopes to be a U.S. congressman, then a senator.

“My goal is to be a voice for other people,” he said, “and I think my skill set makes it best for me to do that in public office.”

But if he doesn’t run for election, Patrick said, “working in the government or in some way where I can change communities is where I want to be.”

Patrick figures the training he has received through the Springer Theatre Academy and the Columbus High drama program will help him attain public office. He had the lead role on the school’s one-act play Class AAAA state championship team and won the award for best actor.

“Politics is just theater with a little bit of social studies,” he said with a laugh.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.