Muirlands Middle School student Maya Gash was one of a few hundred students to participate in the Junior National Young Leaders conference in Washington, D.C. this year. Over the course of five-and-a-half days, she participated in presentations, lectures and workshops teaching leadership skills.
“We learned how to be a good leader, how to have confidence and how to have an impact in the community,” the seventh-grader said. “I’d never been to Washington, D.C. before and this was my first time traveling so far. I was a little bit nervous to participate, but my friend was also selected, so she came with me and that was fun.”
Maya was nominated for the Envision-sponsored program by her teacher, Mark Heinze. Since 1985, according to its website, the for-profit Envision company has empowered more than 800,000 extraordinary students to become their best selves with programs that enable them to discover their passion, explore a career, and positively impact their world.
“Mr. Heinze talked about it, but I didn’t think I would get picked for it. We were all surprised,” Maya said.
For students like Maya, Heinze later told the Light, this program brings to the surface what teachers might see brewing inside.
“Maya, in particular, is soft spoken and so sweet. She is not going to raise her hand and get attention, but if I call upon her, I will always get a quality response, thoughtful and measured,” Heinze said. “There is a sense of maturity about her behavior, which indicates hidden leadership. There is a quiet intellectualism there. She carries herself with grace and she is only in seventh grade.”
The Junior National Young Leaders conference, he continued, puts students through simulations like working with peers to come up with a bill and role-playing the Congress members or senators who might approve it. “You have to sell it and be persuasive,” he said.
Maya said her group had to make a presentation about bullying: “We created something that shows the impact bullying can have on people. We talked about how many people are bullied and that people kill themselves because of it. We brought to light the effects of bullying to try and make things better.”
Another highlight, she said, was hearing from motivational speaker Anthony Robles, who won the 2010 NCAA wrestling championship despite being born with one leg. “He talked about how to believe in yourself and be confident and not give up,” Maya said.
There were also tours of D.C. landmarks, including the White House.
The Junior National Young Leaders conference, according to press material, presents activities that mirror real-world challenges to foster critical thinking, using specially trained teachers and single-subject experts. To date, more than 800,000 students have participated in the program.
“I’ve been teaching for 16 years at Muirlands,” Heinze said. “We have so many brilliant students, but some are more vocal than others. The less-vocal ones show up on paper, and when they get leadership opportunities, they thrive. Maya is a future leader. She’s going to be a wonderful member of our society.”