Laura Turner, WHS GEAR UP Coordinator, who helped to plan the event, said the goal was to host a session for seniors that looked and felt like a professional development conference their teachers might attend in the course of their ongoing career training.
“The idea behind the Senior Mini-Conference was to help these students prepare for what’s next,” Turner said. “It was really geared towards helping students have a good start on the experiences and challenges they will face as they prepare to graduate high school.”
Turner said the day was made up of several small conference sessions including, a panel discussion and question and answer session with former WHS graduates and a life and career planning session presented by Laura Padgett, Director of Graduate Student Life at Appalachian State University.
Students also attended a self-care session presented by the WHS Student Services Department. Students were given the opportunity to learn different strategies for self-care, beginning with short mindfulness exercises and moving to different stations throughout the session that hosted everything from yoga to time with therapy dogs.
“We are really pleased with how everything went,” Turner said. “From the panel discussion with graduates to the career and life planning session on how to initiate and follow up on job interviews, to meeting with employers and post-secondary ed institutions, and a session on making sure you are taking care of your own needs on top of everything else.
“The whole purpose of the event was to make these seniors feel confident about where they go next — wherever that might be. We really want them to know that we are here for them as they navigate their senior year and the difficulties that can come with it.”
Another important part of the Mini-Conference planning team was WHS Assistant Principal and Career and Technical Education Director Tierra Stark.
Stark said there was particular value in giving students a training session on how to address prospective employers, then immediately giving them the chance to try their skills in the career expo representatives from those institutions in person.
“We wanted to give seniors an opportunity to talk face-to-face with prospective employers and post-secondary education institutions,” Stark said. “We wanted them to be able to learn about the processes involved, then immediately get to go try their hand at it and go home with real-world experience.”
Stark said she wanted students to have the opportunity to self-advocate.
“Of course, we want to familiarize them with the normal tasks of the college and career application process, but we want them to be able to self-advocate and create opportunities for themselves in other ways, too,” Stark said. “It can be difficult for anyone to brag on themselves and to be forthcoming about all the great things they are capable of, but we know we have some truly special students here and we want them to be able to show it off.”
Stark said she hoped seniors were able to leave the mini-conference know they will be supported over the transition into their post-secondary lives.
“I hope they learned to believe in themselves and to believe in the process, and although there is hard work ahead of them, they are able to do it,” Stark said. “I hope they realize there are people and systems in place that are dedicated to seeing them succeed. There are so many people in this building that are here to help them get where they are going,” Stark said.
Representatives from a number of local employers and colleges were on hand to visit with seniors during the expo, including, NC Works, Skyline/Skybest, Sugar Mountain, Chick-Fil-A, The Town of Boone, App Regional Healthcare Systems, the United States Army, The United States Marine Corps, Boone Fire Department, Charleston Forge, High Country Home Builders Association, Blue Ridge Electric, Watauga County Parks and Recreation, Watauga County Schools, Caldwell Community College, Wilkes Community College, East Tennessee State University, Appalachian State University, Lees-McRae College, Lenoir Rhyne University and UNC-Asheville.
The senior-mini conference also hosted Kim Shepherd, CEO of Skyline/Skybest as a keynote speaker. Stark thanked Shepherd for taking the time to speak at the conference saying Shepherd’s remarks were very valuable to students.