GLOCESTER - Ponaganset High School student Aaron Dupuis was just a second-grader when he first strolled through the cavernous halls of the Rhode Island Statehouse. He remembers vividly climbing up the marble stairs, staring up in amazement at the ornate rotunda dome and peeking through the doors of the stately House and Senate chambers.
But what impressed him most that day was when he met then-Lt. Gov. Charles J. Fogarty Jr. Dupuis' father had just landed a new state government job and after pulling a few strings was able to arrange for his son to meet the lieutenant governor.
It was a meeting that had a lasting impression on the young Dupuis.
"At the time, he was the second most important legislative leader and executive in state government, and I remember being really amazed by him and thinking what an important job he had," says Dupuis.
Zach Farnum of Foster, Dupuis' friend and classmate at Ponaganset High, became interested in politics in the seventh grade, the year of the Rhode Island gubernatorial race between then-Gov. Donald Carcieri and Fogarty, who was prevented by term limits from running again for the lieutenant governor position.
"We were doing a lot of election-related stuff in school and it was something that I really grew interested in," the high school junior says.
In his freshman year, Farnum was the campaign manager for his grandfather, Roger L. Hawes, who was running for a seat on the Foster Town Council. Hawes won and Farnum was hooked on politics from that point on.
Today, both Dupuis and Farnum are working after school as Senate pages at the State House where their civic involvement and political engagement are reaching new heights.
Ask anyone who knows them and they'll tell you that Dupuis and Farnum are challenging the perception of political apathy that typically characterizes young citizens.
Political apathy is a common problem among educated, college-age students. Even in 2008, Barack Obama's youth surge reached only 48.5 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds.
Nationally, only about 21 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2010 congressional midterm elections, according to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
A number of reasons explain why the younger generation tends to not be as motivated by the political realm. Some students say that their lack of involvement stems from a belief that little will change in the country, regardless of who wins the presidency.
Dupuis, 17, the son of William and Mary Dupuis of Glocester, says political awareness and the desire to be politically engaged came to him at an early age.
While in the fifth-grade - a couple years after meeting Fogarty at the State House - Dupuis got the opportunity to meet the tough-talking, toupee-sporting former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci before he was was convicted of racketeering and sent to prison.
"Even though I knew he was involved in a federal probe and was surrounded by a lot of controversy, I was impressed that he took the time out of his busy schedule to talk to me," says Dupuis, a high school senior.
When asked what words of advice Cianci gave him, Dupuis said, "he told me to always listen to my parents and work hard in school."
In eighth-grade, Dupuis - a self-declared Democrat - volunteered as a campaign worker for Glocester Town Council Democratic candidate Michael Joyce, who won the seat that year. Dupuis volunteered again for Joyce's re-election campaign in 2008.
Perhaps his most exhilarating political moment came in March of 2008, when then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton- Barack Obama's main opponent in the Democratic primary contest that year - came to Rhode Island.
"I got the opportunity to meet her when she came to Rhode Island and was able to be on the stage with her when she addressed the audience at Rhode Island College," Dupuis says. "It was amazing to meet her and to also see President Clinton."
Last year, Dupuis worked on two local Glocester School Committee campaigns for candidates Cynthia A. Joyce and Mary Ann F. Carroll, both of whom won election. He also helped with Burrillville Town Councilman Edward Blanchard's campaign.
"I love politics and elections," he says. "Election season for me is like Christmas."
By working on his grandfather's campaign in Foster, Farnum, 16, the son of Robert and Kathy Farnum of Foster, was eventually introduced to members of the Foster Democratic Town Committee. He is now an associate member of the committee.
He's visited the country's capital, Washington, D.C., three times, calling it one of his favorite places of all time.
In the general election last November, Farnum volunteered to work on the campaigns of five Democratic candidates, and just this past week, the Foster Town Council presented Farnum with a citation in recognition of his work as a Senate page.
Farnum got the job with a little help from Democratic state Sen. Paul W. Fogarty (D-Dist. 23, Burrillville, Glocester, North Smithfield).
"We ran into Sen. Fogarty at a restaurant one night and my father mentioned that I was interested in working as a page," Farnum said. "Sen. Fogarty mentioned that just a few weeks earlier he had recommended Aaron as a page at the statehouse, which was weird, because I knew Aaron. We golfed together in the Foster Country Club summer league."
One thing led to another and soon Farnum found himself at the State House delivering correspondence and legislative material, preparing the Senate chamber for sessions, carrying bills and amendments to various senators, and retrieving water for senators and clerks.
Farnum works on a different night than Dupuis, so they never get to see each other.
"It's very exciting and with the deadline for legislation coming up it;s going to get even more exciting," says Farnum.
Dupuis is equally enamored by his job as a Senate page.
"I love to watch how the House and Senate work," he says. "It's amazing to watch. Sometimes it's like watching a full-contact sport."
Dupuis' plans after high school are to attend either Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire or Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina where he plans to study optometry before pursuing politics.
"My hope is that I can fund a political campaign to some day run for a seat in the General Assembly," he says.
Farnum is hoping to attend Roger Williams University to pursue a degree in law and political science. His political ambitions include starting out with possible election runs for town moderator or town council in Foster.
However, Farnum says he has an even loftier goal.
"My ultimate goal is to run for president of the United States," he says.
And Farnum just might do it. At 16, he's got 19 years to get a law degree and raise money for a campaign.
Lots and lots of money
"I'm still young, so who knows?" he says.