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Why a Texas Student-Turned-Documentary Star Got an Unexpected Call from a Former President



TX – Like so many students these days, Steven Garza, a 20-year-old University of Texas sophomore, was studying for his remote courses from his room in his parent’s Houston home when he got an unexpected phone call.

Someone important, he soon learned, wanted to meet him.

“I spend most of my time in my room doing work so I was in my room and I got the call that President Clinton wanted to have me on his podcast,” Garza tells PEOPLE. “It was a very surreal moment. Certainly not a phone call you get every day. It was just … really, really hard to wrap my head around.”

Days later, he and Bill Clinton were meeting via Zoom, Garza introducing himself to the former president from his bedroom.

“My mom was in the room with me — not on camera but for the entire conversation,” he says. “She did pop in to say, ‘Thank you for speaking with my son,’ and, ‘Say hi to Miss Hillary,’ which made me laugh,” Garza says. “It completely made her week.”

The soft-spoken student’s connection to Clinton needs a bit of backstory: Garza is one of the breakout stars of the 2020 documentary Boys State, chronicling the 2018 session of Texas Boys State, an annual week-long program in which roughly 1,000 high school students participate in a mock state government complete with elections.

Attendees are divided into two fictional political parties during the program, drafting platforms and holding races for both local and state offices. At the end of the week, two senators are elected to represent their state at Boys Nation, held later in the summer.

Garza, the son of a Mexican immigrant and a self-described political progressive, chose to run for “governor” at the program, quickly standing out among a field of largely conservative, overwhelmingly white participants.

More than 40 years prior to Garza’s participation, a young Clinton also attended Boys State, where he was elected as one of two Arkansas “senators” in 1963. The future president, then a teenager, went on to attend the Boys Nation program where he visited the White House and shook hands with then-President John F. Kennedy.

The experience, as Clinton explains in a new episode of his podcast, Why Am I Telling You This? with Bill Clinton, was life-changing.

“Boys State … helped teach me from a young age that democracy requires us to get off the sidelines and into the arena,” Clinton says on the episode, which was released Thursday. “Imperfect as it may be, we can’t take this system of ours for granted. And if we want to make it better and make a difference in people’s lives, we need to stand up, show up, and speak up, day after day and year after year.”

The latest episode features a conversation with Garza who, since the documentary was filmed, has graduated from Mayde Creek High School (becoming the first in his family to do so) and gone on the University of Texas at Austin, where he’s now in his second year.

The documentary itself has earned a slew of accolades, winning the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 2020, landing on the short-list for Best Documentary Oscar and being named among former President Barack Obama’s list of year-end favorites.

While life for Garza has certainly gotten more interesting as a result — and, as he explains, often includes virtual Q&As and events with politicians and celebrities — it’s also stayed remarkably normal for a college student.

Speaking with PEOPLE from Houston, he recounts how recent weeks have been challenging due to the historic winter weather that crippled Texas’ power grid.

As the storm made its way to the Lone Star State on a Sunday evening and temperatures dropped precipitously, Garza began to worry about his mother, who was driving home from Mexico after dropping off supplies to family there.

“On her way back, she spun out and crashed about two hours outside of Houston,” he says. “Luckily we were able to talk to her on the phone and get her to a hotel in that area.”

While his mom got to a safe place quickly, the situation became more dire for Garza, his stepfather and his brother.

Garza says he was the only one awake at 2 a.m. when the power first went out. Using his phone flash light, he found candles and then dressed in layers — two pairs of sweatpants, a long-sleeve T-shirt, jacket and a robe tied on his head — to keep warm.

He added gloves when he ventured outside, which was fairly often in order to gather wood and stack it neatly in piles near the front door, allowing for easy access to throw into the fireplace for added warmth.

Garza says that, thanks to the family’s gas stove, they were able to cook and eat food. They were among the “lucky ones,” he says.

As he tells Clinton in the new podcast episode, the historic weather offered him a special understanding of the role government can play in people’s lives.