This Saturday volunteers from Austin College’s Alpha Phi Omega chapter, Phi Xi, worked with Boy Scouts of America Troop 604 in the campus’s second year of “Merit Badge University.” Merit Badge University, or MBU, is an event designed to provide the environment and opportunity for Scouts to continue their advancement towards Eagle Scout. This program allows them to earn merit badges that can be hard for troops with low resources to provide or are often relegated to specific seasons (like swimming). During MBU, scouts can earn up to two merit badges in one day. This year’s MBU is the first to have mixed attendance after the historic 2017 decision to accept female membership into the once non-coed youth programs of the Boy Scouts. According to the Executive Director of the Texoma Valley, Michael Henrichsen, two girl troops representing Whitesboro and the Dallas area, made up 11 of the 142, or roughly 8%, of the total attendance.
I had the chance to interview Joe Masson, Chair of Merit Badge University, about the benefits of a program like MBU and how it came to be hosted at Austin College. He told me that Grayson College was the original location but the campus lacked the pool facilities, a large enough cafeteria, and the number of volunteers needed to maximize its benefits to the scouting community. The ultimate goal of the program has been to serve as wide an audience as possible. Masson said that the campus is very nice and peaceful enough to have a bird study merit badge class on the list of options offered this year. He also expressed his gratitude on behalf of the entirety of the Texoma Valley’s scouts for the college’s generosity. He concluded by telling me that he believes events like MBU matter because it is “important for [scouts] to know the community, and APO, is willing to put forth the effort. APO members have to be intensively trained in order to teach these classes.”
After our conversation, Masson introduced me to Michael Henrichsen, the Texoma Valley District Executive for the Boy Scouts of America. He expressed many of the same opinions about the meaning of the event that Masson had expressed. When asked about the end of gender restrictions in the Boy Scout’s youth programming, Henrichsen said that the new members have been well accepted into the fold. The administration has worked to shift language in its programming towards more inclusive terms and orienting its focus towards the family. He even stated that the Texas council has had the highest acceptance rate for female members. Henrichson also expressed that though the organization has been supportive, some of its sponsors have not. Despite this, Henrichson was optimistic that the mission of the Boy Scouts is still about “focusing on families and kids.”
I was also introduced to Dr. Henry “Hank” Gorman, APO’s sponsor at Austin College and Chair of the Texoma Valley’s “Scouting for Food” program. He looked proud to see his sponsored organization at work. When asked why he thought MBU was important he had plenty to say. The main benefit is getting young people on to a college campus, Austin College in particular. His second was that it offered both the college and APO an excellent opportunity to connect with the community through service-oriented leadership. Dr. Gorman also took the time to enlighten me on the history of the Boy Scouts co-ed programming, like Varsity Scouting and Sea Scouts, which have been co-ed for decades. The new programming is focused on opening up the lower levels of the organization to girls. He also expressed regret that these policies are only arriving now when he told me that his daughter had wanted to be a Boy Scout when she was a child.
The last person I met during the lunch break was PFC Cody Brussow. Brussow is an Eagle Scout and currently serving in the Army Reserves, but today he was assisting with the Indian Lore merit classes. As we talked about why programs like MBUn are important Brussow explained that “most troops only have so many resources to spend and that it helps on the path to Eagle. It democratizes opportunity.” He also said that it is great to bring youth on to the campus because it opens their eyes to a possible future. Unlike the other people I interviewed, Brussow expressed that he had “personally hoped that girls wouldn’t get in, but I can see the necessity.” He was concerned about the difficulty and rigorousness of the scout training, but he has since come around to the new policy. He summed up his views saying, “You just gotta go with the flow. As long as they’re happy, I’m happy.”
As I left my last interview I found myself awed by the diversity of the scouts that were coming and going from their lunch in the cafeteria. There were scouts representing almost every facet of society and every type of child and teenager, yet I did not personally see any of the girl scouts in the mix. I was told that both troops were busy working in the all-day swimming merit class and that I would not be able to interview them for their thoughts on MBU and the effects of the new policy. I was also not able to interview any of the scouts themselves because they were extremely busy heading off to their respective classes. Ultimately, it is these children’s futures that matter the most and it seems that they are in good hands, but only time will tell if the appeal and opportunity of Merit Badge University will continue to attract its new audience.