Some might consider the task of planning and pulling off a virtual summit with more than one hundred attendees a daunting task, but once a group of CA students saw the chance to create a powerful learning experience for their peers and classmates, they couldn’t help but say “YES!”
In mid-January 2020, a group of six Upper School students attended the Youth Forum Switzerland (YFS). Hosted by the International School of Zug and Luzern, YFS was modeled after the World Economic Forum, which was occurring at the same time an hour away in Davos. YFS brought together ambitious and energized students the world over to brainstorm ways to confront the challenges facing the next generation of leaders—moving communities to zero waste, gender inequity, digital privacy, and mental health—and build connections between contemporary experts and teenage scholars.
The CA students returned to North Carolina empowered and emboldened but also very aware of the elite nature of the experience. Rather than become de facto leaders of a series of new initiatives, they wanted to democratize the experience, expanding the opportunity to their peers and classmates.
“We were the first overseas students to attend YFS. All the things they were doing to empower youth, seeing kids our age really making a difference in their communities and around the world, was so inspiring,” beams Ryan Azrak ’21. “We wanted to bring that back to CA but also to branch out even further and transfer that sense of empowerment to students all across the United States.”
According to Entrepreneurship Director Palmer Seeley, who accompanied the students to Switzerland, a plan to democratize the YFS experience was in motion before the plane landed back in the United States.
“Our students kept talking about how they wished everyone in their ENVIRO class had heard that speaker, or that the robotics team could have attended this session, or that there was a video of a panel that they could share with their club or affinity group. It was at that point that I heard them ask, ‘Would this sort of conference be something we could do back at CA?’”
Despite the emerging disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the students presented a plan for a global youth summit to be held at CA. The focus would be on connecting peers to explore some of the world’s most pressing issues, from racial justice to climate change to the pandemic. Knowing that building a global forum from scratch was quite a leap, they formulated instead a plan for a smaller-scale virtual forum. Thus, YES!—the Youth Engagement Summit—was born.
Though the pandemic forced a shift to virtual learning, the students behind YES! carried on planning their forum, working on their own time, at first, and later also during Flex Days, when the new academic schedule was adopted in the fall. Their dedication and hard work paid off. With the guidance and support of the Center for Community Engagement, YES! would take place during Discovery Term—CA’s two-week experiential education period that closes out the school year—and exclusively open to the sophomore class.
“The biggest challenge they faced was time,” says Seeley. “They found time to meet as a group every week since they got back from Switzerland—even when CA was on break and all summer—and they worked on their own, as well. For most of them, they had only been to one conference—the one they’d just returned from—and they knew putting together a four-day conference like this would take a monumental effort. It took a huge amount of trust on the part of the school’s leadership that these students could make it work.”
Challenge is another word for opportunity
In case you were wondering, the ambitious task before the YES! leaders didn’t dampen spirits. “It was a really fun process for us,” smiles Sydney Tai ’22. “We had multiple meetings where we just brainstormed ideas about dozens of topics, based off what we had learned at YFS. Then, we sent it to the sophomores for their input and feedback. Through that, we were able to expand the list tenfold then narrow it down to three plenary foci (youth mental health, racial justice, and confronting anti-Asian sentiment) and four deep-dive tracks: ethical inquiries, the future of environmentalism, gender and sexuality, and the accessibility of the American Dream.”
With a lot of collaborative hard work, the YES! leaders built a program of more than 40 (!) individual panels, discussions, activities, and opportunities for CA sophomores to find their sparks, while engaging with more than three dozen guest speakers, including experts from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UNC, Wake Forest, faith leaders, and even a representative from SpaceX (just to name a few).
“I’ve really enjoyed figuring out how to get the sophomores more personally engaged in activism,” shares Allie Chandler ’22. One of the goals of the Youth Engagement Summit is to let youth find different topics that interest them. In Switzerland, we got the opportunity to explore all these different topics and then figure out what interested us and what we could take back to the community. It’s been a really transformative experience to go from being the person that was trying to learn, to trying to figure out how to help other people find something that they’re interested in.”
The YES! leaders wanted to give their peers more than just information sessions and the chance to hear from experts—they wanted their classmates to have the same transformative experience that they’d had, but without the jet lag. “The [YES! leaders] realized how powerful the experience of being in the room was, the value of their interactions with the experts at YFS, and—most importantly—how critical it was to share those experiences with other students,” says CA’s Director of Equity and Community Engagement, Danielle Johnson-Webb. “The excitement and personal investment that develops when a student is able to follow their passions and explore their interests is absolutely transformative. And not only as students—these experiences are life-changing.”
“It was truly amazing, watching the students develop important soft skills,” notes Seeley. “They figured out not only how to brainstorm topics, reach out to potential speakers, and handle the logistical challenge of taking a swarm of rough ideas and turning them into a workable conference schedule, but how to communicate honestly with each other. They knew that they all had the larger effort’s best interest at heart, intrinsically understanding the pros and cons of whether or not to establish an organizational hierarchy. They learned how to learn on the fly, adjusting based on what was and wasn’t working. More than anything, they developed the skill of confidence.”
Teaching to learn
For the YFS alumni, the process of building YES! wasn’t simply about producing material to be consumed by the sophomore class, but to elevate members of the Class of 2023, like Jacob King and Brianna Liang, to become leaders themselves.
Liang, new to CA this year, fell into the role by accident—not realizing that she was responding to a call for leaders by volunteering to provide further input when ranking her preference of topics—rose to the occasion. “I thought I was helping to inform how the workshops would be created, but I didn’t realize I would be leading a workshop on my own. And then I ended up leading two. I’ve learned so much in the process, both about my topics—gentrification and upcycling—and about how to keep people engaged.”
“I can’t sit through a boring workshop,” says King, who became fast friends with Liang over the course of the year, often helping her overcome her self-described shyness by introducing her to other CA students. “I jumped in at the last minute when I saw that other sophomores were leading workshops. By helping Brianna teach, I’m helping everyone learn—including myself. I’ve had a few leadership experiences in the past and what I always find amazing and engaging about it is the sense that, as you’re teaching something, you’re learning it even more deeply.”
“Learning to teach is as much a part of the experiential education process as taking part in a seminar or participating in a field trip,” agrees Johnson-Webb. “Not only is it a fantastic way to ensure that the students have mastery of a subject, but it also helps them build confidence in their ability to connect and communicate with each other—to bridge differences in learning styles and experiences.”
A common experience that Chandler, King, Liang, and Tai all had in building different parts of YES! was the opportunity to grow their own network of connections—whether within CA, or with subject matter experts on everything from manufacturing upcycled furniture to colonizing Mars. They hope that YES! helps their fellow students similarly build their networks.
“What we really loved about YFS was that they had all of these experts that we could actually engage with personally. We could ask them questions,” shares Chandler. “And that’s why we had students interviewing some of the experts at YES. Even though it’s virtual, we built in opportunities for students to have unstructured time with the presenters.”
“Watching students connect with young presenters—including alumni like hip-hop educator Kevin “Rowdy” Rowsey ’09, mental health advocate Ceren Iz ’19, Activist Collab co-founder Meirav Soloman ’21, and space advocates Abe Weinstein ’19 and Orlin Velev ’13 of SpaceX—was truly exciting,” says Seeley.
Excitement, it seems, is contagious. A dozen rising juniors are already brainstorming the next YES! experience. Spurred by the examples set by their peers, they can’t wait to build upon what they’ve learned, passing along their lessons and impassioned opportunities to the next group of CA students.