student summit

200 teens gathered for this year’s Student Summit. Here’s what made it ‘magical.’

Photo above of student Calise Cowans courtesy of Woodland Hills High School.

On any other day, the 200 high school students who gathered inside the Woodland Hills High school cafeteria might lead drastically different lives. They come from different districts and might even meet each other as fierce competitors, opposing each other on the football field, trying to top each other in a debate, or vying for a Gene Kelly Award on stage. But last week, this group came together at our region’s fourth-annual Student Summit with a common goal: To discuss critical social issues and effect change in their communities.

They came from Aliquippa, Avonworth, Belle Vernon, Greater Johnstown, Mt. Lebanon, Penn Hills, Shaler and Westmont Hilltop for an event that began as English teacher Erin Wall’s method for Woodland Hills students to talk about a series of traumatic events, including the shooting death of Antwon Rose. In the past four years, the Student Summit has morphed into a multi-district event involving students from urban, suburban and rural school districts.

This year’s Student Summit, produced in collaboration with Penn State Extension 4-H and L.I.G.H.T. Education Initiative, included sessions on women’s rights, LGBTQ issues, mental health, animal care, racial and social injustice, gun violence and climate change. Student leaders guided each discussion, offering information and access to resources. As they explored these issues, students shared their own perspectives and experiences.

Two students who served as leaders for their Student Summit discussion groups have shared with Kidsburgh their thoughts about the summit as a whole and why they stepped forward as leaders.

student summit
Levi McGraw-Sapp, photo courtesy of Woodland Hills High School

LEVI MCGRAW-SAPP, senior, Woodland Hills High School

“Coming right off the cusp of tragedy in the form of Antwon Rose II’s death, in a position where most would retreat to the confines of their home and mourn for days upon end, Ms. Erin Wall worked tirelessly to bring justice to a situation that was riddled with so much injustice. She organized the student summit. The student summit is a social network created due to racial injustice, and expanded to the likes of mental health and women’s rights, allowing adolescents from all over to speak on these hard-hitting topics that we tend to shy away from. This is very beneficial for the youth because though they may be adolescents today, they will all be adults tomorrow, myself included. Opportunities such as this allow them to prepare themselves for the real world without having to depend on others to do the work for them. They acknowledge what is right and just, form their own argument, and share it with all those who care.

Fortunately for me, I made the most of this opportunity this year. Everyone was enthusiastic about their topics. For example, I worked in the climate change workshop. My partners were from Westmont Hilltop and Belle Vernon. There was also one other that attended Woodland Hills as well. In the months leading up to the summit, we met virtually. Despite having not known each other prior to being grouped together, our conversations flowed naturally whenever we spoke to one another. We felt a sense of comfort in each other’s presence. We joked around and had fun while getting our work done.

Eventually, we saw the fruits of our labor pay off on the day of the summit when we saw tons of people in attendance, waiting to listen to what we had to say. Every school district had something different to offer and allowed us to view things from their perspective – a different perspective. Combining the various perspectives gave us a more effective argument, bringing us one step closer to our goal of creating a better future for ourselves and those around us.

Overall, the path leading to the event was outstanding, but the event itself was magical. I honestly could not have asked for a better way to spend my Friday morning. None of it would have been possible without Ms. Wall, the youth, or the Woodland Hills community.”

Student Summit
Cassandra Heinauer photo courtesy of Woodland Hills High School

CASSANDRA HEINAUER, junior, Avonworth High School

“My name is Cassandra Heinauer. I’m a junior at Avonworth High School and this is my second year as Student Summit Leader. This year I was a leader of the Animal Welfare group. The variety of the topics at the summit makes it really interesting and easy to choose something you are passionate about.

Since the beginning of the school year, my fellow group members and I met twice in person to plan our presentation and how we would moderate the discussion occurring in our group. This experience has shown me what it is like to meet new people and learn from their backgrounds and opinions. The Student Summit is a fantastic opportunity as it allows us to have an open and honest conversation about things that are important and influential to our generation.

As a leader, I find it valuable to raise important questions and hear what others say about them. The presentation takes a lot of time to prepare as you have to research and deeply understand your topic, but I think there is also something to be said for just allowing the participants to lead the conversation and give them a voice. By addressing social issues and combating them through love and thought, we will raise a generation of people who can respect one another and cohesively change the world for the better.

I’m so beyond grateful for all the friendships I’ve made during this experience, but most importantly, leading the Summit has taught me to listen to others and hear what they have to say.”