Gunnar Smith, a Highland High School junior, attended the 2023 Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) conference at Mount Saint Mary College this past summer, gaining experiences that he hopes will serve him well in college and beyond. His participation was sponsored by the Highland Rotary Club.
RYLA is an annual event that brings youth from across the region together for an intensive experience designed to help them develop skills in leadership, team-building, problem-solving and communication, while also having fun and making connections. RYLA’s main goal is to teach youth about the power of confidence, comfort and cooperativeness. Participants are provided a once-in-a-lifetime experience that builds social and working skills.
Smith returned from the conference excited and energized. The young leader gave a presentation at a Highland Rotary Club meeting, speaking to the group about the many valuable experiences from his time at RYLA.
One of Smith’s intentions in participating was to hone the kind of skills he anticipates needing in college, including public speaking. Smith, who said that his goal since early childhood has been to become a veterinarian, is currently enrolled in the Ulster BOCES Animal Sciences program, which he began this fall.
Smith says that the most valuable thing he took away from RYLA was “definitely leadership, which will be needed down the line for college or my future career.” Though Smith describes himself as “introverted,” he said that after five days of engaging in activities and exercises, such as role-playing, Pictionary, and a non-competitive “Olympics,” he felt as if he and his fellow students were a family.
“My self-confidence has improved significantly because they push you out of your shell,” he remarked. “One girl said she did not want to talk to anyone initially, but by the end she was friends with everyone. I would do it again if I had the chance.”
Each day, students were grouped together for three hours to work on a project that was to be presented at the end of the conference. One project that challenged the teams was to assemble random items into an “invention” and present it as a commercial. “They mixed our teams up so we interacted with different people,” Smith explained.
Highland Central School District Superintendent Joel Freer said that he deeply appreciates that the Highland Rotary provides students with opportunities to grow as leaders. “Instilling leadership skills at a young age sets our students up for much success in the future,” Freer noted.