I spent a day with 32 rising high school juniors and seniors.
As part of the eXcel Leadership Academy, the students made connections with business leaders, learned about the Hampton Roads economy, gained insight into internships and secured social capital.
Sponsored by the Hampton Roads Chamber, the program is in its 10th year. This year it ran from July 17-21 with a packed schedule of regional site visits and classroom work sessions.
I’m a rising senior in college – an intern at Inside Business – only a few years older than the students. I was excited to talk with the kids, see what motivated them, and perhaps offer some sage advice of my own.
I spoke with at least a dozen students during our travel time on the bus and was amazed by how aware they were of the items they needed to check off to get ahead. A majority of the students had summer jobs, some had specific colleges in mind. Others knew what they wanted to do professionally.
“Nowadays we need to start making connections so early. College is so competitive,” said Maeve Stiles, a rising junior at Maury High School. She’s also attended camps at Princeton and Duke and wants to study astrophysics.
Kacey Counts from Ocean Lakes has already attended the Youth Police Academy in Virginia Beach and wants to work as a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
Abhir Karande, also from Ocean Lakes, wants to study computer science at Stanford.
I arrived on the third day of the program. It started with a trip to The Port of Virginia. Russell Held, the port’s vice president of economic development and an eXcel alumnus, welcomed the class.
Held asked the students to introduce themselves and name something they’re passionate about. He then walked us through the important role the port plays in supporting the state economy. Joanne Jenkins, terminal services manager, then played a video highlighting recent construction at the port. The grand finale brought dramatic music and a slow opening of the blinds to reveal a bird’s eye view of the entire port operation.
As the students’ eyes gleamed, Nae Nae Thompson, a junior already enrolled in classes at Tidewater Community College, inquired, “if this is the third biggest port in the nation, how do you promote yourself to major companies? What makes you stand out?”
Following a tour of The Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, many students wrestled with deep questions about food insecurity in our region.
After a walk-through of the Norfolk storage facilities, staff handed out colored cards to the class, symbolizing the cards we’re all dealt in life.
Students with red cards would take steps forward as items were listed such as, “your family had a car growing up,” and “you had access to health insurance,” whereas blue card-holders were told, “you had to go hungry some nights, take a step back,” or, “you couldn’t afford education after high school, take two steps back.”