TOPEKA — This has been a remarkable year for Braxton Moral, the 17-year-old from southwest Kansas who earned a high school diploma and Harvard University degree in May.
His academic prowess has taken him on a journey from his rural hometown of Ulysses to the gallery of the Kansas House for Gov. Laura Kelly's State of the State address and to Cambridge, Mass., where German chancellor Angela Merkel delivered the commencement speech for Harvard graduates.
Moral appeared on NBC's "Today" show and, after the Hutchinson News wrote about his accomplishments, he was profiled by the New York Times and numerous other publications.
He is now a student at Washburn University's School of Law in Topeka. An aspiring politician who is still too young to vote, Moral believes you should know the law before you make laws.
"Washburn's a great school," Moral said. "I really enjoy being there, studying there. I enjoy it. Topeka, it's populated but not too populated. It's not quite intimidating."
Moral talked about growing up in southwest Kansas, the value of public education and his political hopes during a recording of the Capitol Insider podcast.
He chose to continue his education at Washburn in part because of concerns by Harvard and other schools about allowing a juvenile on campus. Moral said he is comfortable in Topeka, where his family is just a six-hour drive away. He hasn't decided what he will do after this school year.
“It's really a pleasure to work with Braxton," said Tonya Kowalski, a professor of law and co-director of the Comparative and International Law Center at Washburn. "He's got a wonderful sense of humor and contributes a great deal to the class.”
Moral jokes that he realized he was different from classmates somewhere around the time they got past the coloring stage in kindergarten. The teachers were great, he said, but he wasn't learning "the content that I needed for that time in my life."
He began testing out of classes, moving up grades, and participating in special programs. His parents encouraged him to stay focused.
"I've been told that as I was getting less and less challenged and less and less enthusiastic about school, they needed a way to keep me interested and keep me working hard," Moral said.
He said he couldn't remember how he first landed on Harvard's radar because he was too young, somewhere around 11, at the time.
As he pursued Harvard courses online, Moral also made his way through high school curriculum. Stress relief, he said, was a video game console and World of Warcraft, "which doesn't do anything for the nerd persona, does it?"
He began spending summers in Cambridge after his sophomore year of high school, taking classes alongside other young, talented students. On campus, he relished the exposure to a wide variety of people found in an urban setting.
"I think meeting other people is just allowing me to view the world from their lens while not necessarily changing my own, and just understand not every place is like Kansas," Moral said. "Especially in terms of diversity of country — meeting people from all across the globe.
"When you meet somebody from a different country in New York, for instance, people won't blink twice. But if you meet somebody from, you know, Switzerland, and you're from Kansas, that's a big deal because you've never met anybody from Switzerland."
Kelly invited Moral to attend her inaugural State of the State address in January. She singled out the "amazing young Kansan" during her speech, highlighted his achievements and asked the crowd of Kansas lawmakers and dignitaries to recognize him in the House gallery.
"Students like Braxton exemplify the transformative power of our public schools — a place where all Kansas children who strive can reach their potential and overcome any obstacle, no matter where they come from," Kelly said.
Moral said he was grateful for the "surreal" experience and the feeling that working hard had gotten him somewhere.
Public schools, Moral said, allowed him to achieve his goals, and he thinks more people would feel the same way "if the public school system wasn't as demonized as it tends to be."
The State of the State address also provided Moral a window into the political world.
"That event in general is probably the most political thing I've had the opportunity to be a part of, which is very nice when you want to go into politics," Moral said. "It's always great to see how people interact with each other in that setting, how a speech like that is actually put on. It's exposure and inspiration, and it was very nice to be able to come."
Other political inspirations for Moral include President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who may be "even more impressive than we make him out to be," Moral said, and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts.
Roberts — a fixture for agriculture policy in Washington, D.C., who served in the House for 16 years before winning four terms to the Senate — announced in January he will retire when his current term expires.
"I think people forget just how much of an impact he made, regardless of if you agree with him or not," Moral said. "I think people from both sides of the aisle should at least respect certain statesmen just because of the way they present themselves and the way they interact with other states."
Roberts, responding to an inquiry for this story, offered these words of advice for Moral.
“Politics have gotten so polarizing, but I always work across the aisle and am friends with my colleagues, regardless of their party,” Roberts said. “That’s how you get things done in the Senate. Just look at the Farm Bill — we got a record 86 votes by working with both Republicans and Democrats to get the best bill possible.”