Many area high school students are concentrating on leisure activities, capitalizing on what remains of their summer. Wilde Lake High School rising junior Ni'Jah Richardson, on the other hand, figured this would be a fine time to improve her communication skills.
The Columbia resident is among 50 students taking part in Leadership U, a Howard County program that helps the county's rising juniors develop leadership skills with community service.
"If I wasn't involved with this, I'd be in basketball or soccer camp. [Instead], I felt as though I needed to gain a little more confidence and learn to take responsibility," said Richardson.
Leadership U was launched in 1996 as part of Leadership Howard County, a group that uses programs to connect community leaders. Leadership Howard County officials said that Leadership U is one of two countywide youth leadership programs in the state.
Leadership U began this year on July 22 with a weeklong program of team building, leadership skills development and tours of Howard County General Hospital, the Bain Senior Center in Columbia and the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup.
Beginning Sunday, the students will work on community service projects through October. They will also spend a day shadowing local community and business leaders.
"Most of the kids just see the county through their school or just from their home, but this gives them a much broader exposure to the county," said Diane Freedman, Leadership Howard County's director of youth programming. "It gives them a picture … of how they can really have an impact on the county."
She added, "We want to show them the whole community, and part of the whole community is seeing what happens when people make choices that aren't so good in their lives, and what we do as a community to help these folks. They really are impressed with the detention center because they see how people can turn themselves around."
Richardson said she applied to Leadership U after hearing about the program during her last school term. She said she is already seeing its benefits.
"I've learned how to open up and say what I want to say instead of keeping in what I feel I need to say," said Richardson, who added that she is part of a group of Leadership U students who will develop an outreach program this fall that focuses on distracted driving.
Manny Mones of Elkridge, a rising junior at Long Reach High School, is part of an outreach group that will work with disadvantaged children. He said the group has showed him the importance of communication skills such as making eye contact while speaking.
"I wanted to challenge myself to pursue something bigger than myself," said Mones. "I feel like as a high school student you're focused on your own thing.
"I already had the idea that I was a leader who worked with people because I'm very gregarious and talkative," added Mones. "I've learned how to take that and utilize it to become an effective leader, talk to people, get their opinions and have an idea of where other people see a problem being solved, and taking that into my own approach."
Ryann Marchetti of Woodstock, a rising junior at Marriotts Ridge High School, said she has discovered many issues that still trouble a county known for its high standard of living and exceptional school system.
"It feels like a good experience and a good way to learn about Howard County," said Marchetti. "We were told to think about how we could improve the lives around us."
Betty Noble, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial and Business Excellence at Howard Community College who has worked with Leadership U for seven years, said she has seen a marked change in the attitudes of its participants in recent years, from being "more independent and self-interested" to more appreciative about being part of the community.
"More recently it seems that they fall into working together more comfortably and are very interested in having a sustainable impact on their local community including the people and their environment," Noble said. "I also think that they come now with a greater understanding of leadership. They seem more ready to both lead and follow and have an understanding of the need for both."