I spent two weekends in June helping with a couple of leadership retreat type conferences for high school students. I was the closing speaker for both the HOBY (Hugh O’Brien Youth Program) conference in Madison, Wisconsin as well as WILS, the Wisconsin Leadership Seminar, which is held in Milwaukee. I made it through the Wisconsin flooding to be with amazing groups of high school students each weekend. I’ve been helping with conference such as these for a handful of years and they are always very powerful experiences for the students, if not the most powerful experience they have had in their life up to that point. They leave visibly changed. Here are some key elements that may make the experience so powerful for the students.

For many students it could be their first leadership learning experience. It could be their first retreat. It could be their first time in residence at a college. It could be their first formal experience to learn about themselves. Our first experiences are often times our most impacting.

Early Start.
It looks like leadership development can be provided to students younger and younger. The students at these conferences just finished their sophomore year of high school. It seems like the time is ripe for them to start discovering themselves and their leadership. After all, they will be applying to college soon and a conference or experience like this could help them with that process and thinking about their future. Perhaps students can even start younger with leadership retreats such as these.

New Peers.
The students arrive as the only student from their high school. They meet other students from similar situations…being their school’s ambassador. It can be powerful to leave your normal peer group to be amongst new peers, especially peers interested in and willing to engage in a leadership conference.

Experience Leadership.
It is experiential. Students do service projects, group projects, and other kinds of projects. They are learning about leadership and themselves through doing it with new people. Though there are a lot of panels where the students sit back and listen to people practicing leadership, the experiences they practice for themselves may be key for them. The students also are very willing to experience. They will be eager to do almost any new experience or activity you ask of them.

Small Groups.
Students are a part of a small group. Through this group they are able to see how new groups can form and lead together through actually experiencing it. For many of these students it is more engaging and easier to share with one another in this small group format.

Crazy might be a close relative of creativity or courage. Students are not only allowed but encouraged to get a little crazy. They use their creativity and energy in full force. The cheers resonate through the whole weekend of the conference. Students can try out new actions and display their talents. A major focus is on being yourself and coming out of your shell.

Key Questions.
At the stage of leadership development the students are at, I’m proposing that they should be encountering self discovery and the diversity of experiences that allow for that self discovery to occur. From reflection on the experiences they have had students can begin to look inward and answer some key questions. I believe that these are key questions for students to start thinking about:
What are my most meaningful experiences?
What are my strengths?
What are my interests?
What are my values?
What new experiences should I gain to learn more about myself?

I have heard over and over again from participants how much their experience with HOBY, WILS, or other first leadership retreats had meant to their life…even 10 years later. I wish I would have had the opportunity to participate in something like this as a high school student before preparing for college application. In conclusion, I believe that we can use many more of these weekend leadership retreats for high school students. The impact seems to be so high at the right time for the students. States, schools, and various programs could certainly offer similar experiences to impact students leadership development and get them on the right track for thinking about college and their future.

Author: Darin Eich, Ph.D.