Siegfried Youth Leadership Program Holds Conference for Local High School Students

If they could do anything, what would Delaware students dream of in the future?

Neurosurgeon. World-traveling photographer. Choir teacher. NASA aerospace engineer. Therapist. Livestreamer. These were some of the aspirations that emerged at the Siegfried Youth Leadership Program® (SYLP) event at the University of Delaware on Tuesday, March 12.

More than 600 eighth to 12th grade students and teachers arrived on buses from around the state at the Bob Carpenter Center for the largest SYLP program to date. They convened at round tables filling the basketball arena.

The Siegfried Group, an entrepreneurial leadership advisory organization founded by Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics alumnus Rob Siegfried, sponsors the annual event in partnership with Junior Achievement of Delaware and Lerner’s Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship and Horn Entrepreneurship. SYLP’s higher purpose is to help young people transform themselves into better individual leaders to enrich their lives and inspire positive change in their communities.

“It is an amazing event that brings youth from Delaware to invest in themselves, and make sure that, as they invest in themselves, they can also have an impact on the people around them,” Carlos Asarta, the James B. O’Neill Director of CEEE, said.

Teacher Kelly Bench from Hodgson Vo-Tech is a big fan of the SYLP. She’s brought students to every single Delaware event — this was her 13th.

“There’s very few programs where it’s very individualized to the student, and the student can take what they’re saying and apply it to their life today,” she said. Afterward on the bus, she’s able to have conversations with students on the character traits they’ve learned about, and how to build them in the future.

She’s able to teach a lot of the skills addressed in her own classroom, Bench said, and added, “It’s amazing what that little seed of leadership can do … I just think that there’s so much value in it.”

The March 12 event highlighted the theme of courage. Organizers encouraged students to think about what they wanted out of life, then discussed concrete steps to reach those goals and the courage it would require.

Demonstrating the character trait in question, Siegfried’s Megan Davis, director of brand and communications for the company, opened up about challenges in her own life, from teen awkwardness to dealing with her father’s death.

“Life is hard. It’s really hard. But, we live it anyway,” she said. “And how do we do that? … We do it with courage, on the good days and the bad days.”

Speakers emphasized the decisions students can make that will influence their lives, recommending that they focus on what they can control, instead of what they can’t.

Courage can look like a firefighter rushing into a building to save someone, said Lauren Campbell, regional chief of staff at Siegfried. But “Courage can also look like a lot of really small decisions over time that are not always easy, but they’re the right decisions.”

Students reflected on positive traits they recognized in themselves, or that other people had pointed out — passion, living wholeheartedly, compassion — and areas that needed work, like patience, focus or connecting better with others. Throughout, they were able to reflect on goals with others at their table and also share them with the room.

Keynote speaker Juan Bendaña, who offers insights on leadership and confidence, came onto stage to a fanfare of pyrotechnic sparks. Through stories from his own life, from swimming with sharks in Hawaii to close encounters with crocodiles and coral snakes in Nicaragua, Bendaña shared about getting past fears, not by somehow eradicating it but by pushing through it. “Fear and courage coexist … you cannot be courageous without feeling the fear and deciding to act,” he said.

Bendaña also emphasized bringing energy to daily life and building consistent habits. “You’ve gotta decide, what are the things that I’m going to incorporate weekly from today,” he said.

Eighth-grader Yubika Sharma, from Gauger-Cobbs Middle School near Newark, enjoys connecting with others at these kinds of events and getting a refresher on the concepts. “One thing I think really sticks with me every single time is (the idea of) just going for it,” she said.

Linda Ruch, who teaches a career and college class at the same school, said this was her first time attending an SYLP event, and there was a lot of good information. She liked seeing so many students motivated about their futures.

“I thought it was very positive and upbeat and encouraging,” Ruch said.

It’s a contagious attitude.

“I’ll see students talking about the conference with other students, and then those students will be like, ‘Can you take me next time?’” Bench said.

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