Brenda Schmidt, adjunct professor of fashion design at Mount Mary University, instructs high school girls how to sketch during a session of the university’s Summer Leadership Academy.

The last half of high school can be a time of uncertainty for some students. It’s a time to think about what’s next, and if it’s higher education, where to go to school and what to study.

Mount Mary’s Summer Leadership Academy, which took place June 19-21, helped dozens of high school women start thinking about their futures and how to make their goals a reality.

The Summer Leadership Academy is an immersive leadership and college readiness experience for incoming juniors and seniors. During this time, the girls stay in the Mount Mary dorms and attend sessions on a variety of topics, such as confidence, leadership and financial aid, as well as vocation, career and college exploration.

“This is an exciting time in their lives,” Kathy Van Zeeland, the director of marketing and communications at Mount Mary University, said. “You’re figuring out who you are and who you want to become, and you’re discovering the importance of certain influences that are impacting you. This is an opportunity to experience personal and career exploration for themselves.”

The session, titled “Racial and Social Dynamics as a Leader,” struck a chord with Grace Adams, an incoming senior at Pewaukee High School. The session included discussion about celebrating diversity and how to integrate the value of diversity into a student’s everyday life.

“I liked that session because it explored different topics you don’t normally learn about, like how to talk about race,” she said. “We talked about the difficult nature of prejudice.”

Other students, like Ronald Reagan IB High School senior Alexandra Navarro, found that the sessions confirmed their intended career field. Navarro found that the session on vocation spoke to her. “It helped me understand what a vocation is and what I want my vocation to be,” she said. “It really instilled in me that I do want to be a social worker when I grow up.”

In addition to sessions that focused around discussion, the young women had other experiences as well. They spoke with young professionals, interacted with current Mount Mary students, and were able to learn about the science behind butter in the food science kitchens and try their hand at creating their own fashion line.

The program as a whole was especially beneficial for Megan Herlache, who will be a junior at Greenfield High School in the fall. She would be the first to attend college from her family. “You’re learning about financial aid, you’re learning about how many degrees there are in a school, you’re learning how to apply and do the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form,” she said.

“It also teaches you about different career opportunities. Even if you think you have your mind set, there are a (number) of opportunities to seize and take on. It’s just a great thing to make sure that people grow up with the right experience with college to get them on the right path to a good career and happy life.”

Several of the girls commented that the program gave them a feel of what it was like to be a college student while living in the dorms for a few nights.

“It’s a cool experience to be in a dorm room with a roomie,” said Herlache. “It’s very fun.”

According to Anne Kahl, the interim director of Mount Mary’s Women Leadership Institute who coordinated the Summer Leadership Academy, this program was previously presented to college-aged women, but this year the university decided to switch the focus to high school girls. While in past years, up to 30 college women would attend, this year 50 high school girls attended.

“We had an incredible response to this,” she said. “We need some exposure like this for high school students.”

“The younger we reach them, the better for our community,” said Van Zeeland. “We can bring our expertise about leadership and confidence to a younger audience.”

Twenty-three high schools, primarily from Wisconsin, sent students to the program. Archdiocesan schools that participated include Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Messmer High School and St. Thomas More High School.

“It’s a positive thing to think about this and your career goals and leadership, so you know what you’re going out and dealing with,” Herlache said. “It’s very wonderful to come and enjoy just the life of being a college student. You’re meeting great new friends, you’re setting goals for yourself and you’re just growing up as a person.”