We Are Young ft. Leaders

By Grace Jin – 12th Grade, North Allegheny Senior High School

Think of a typical teenager. What image comes to mind? A lazy, entitled, acne-battling rebel jaded with technology? Or a compassionate, creative, service-minded and motivated leader? Before attending RYLA, my answer would probably have been the lazy bum. The teenage years can be full of confusing expectations and uncertainty regarding the future. However, they are also an age of self-discovery and an opportunity to explore the infinite potential of youth. 

The Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) is a week-long program designed to seize that opportunity. Rotary Clubs around the globe sponsor RYLA to empower students through personal development and leadership training. I had been actively involved with the Rotary through its high school chapter, Interact, so I was ecstatic when the Northern Allegheny Rotary offered me a scholarship to attend RYLA this summer.

When my mom dropped me off at La Roche College, a dozen teenagers walked over to our car and proceeded to take my luggage from the trunk. Confused, I followed them inside the building and received my room key (it was later explained that those teenagers were alumni who continued a tradition of welcoming new RYLArians). Little did I know how many more traditions, memories, and friendships would be created in the week to come.

Once all 30 participants met their roommates and settled in their dorms, everyone got together to do icebreakers and teambuilding activities (which were surprisingly fun). We were then given a tight-packed schedule of speakers, lessons, and social events.


Why buy a selfie stick when you can just use Keshon’s arm?

Every day, students heard different speakers share their unique stories and experiences. Darren Miller, a social entrepreneur, spoke about his arduous training in preparation for swimming the English channel. My favorite advice from him was: “Do something you don’t want to do every day.”

Chaz Kellum, the Diversity Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, discussed the need for cultural competency in modern America, exploring topics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, privilege, and stereotypes. Liz Buechele, founder of The Smile Project, shared her inspiring story about overcoming depression to spread happiness through daily journal-writing. Matt Burnett, RYLA counselor and founder of Pure Thirst, showcased his amazing work helping with the water crisis in Honduras and Tanzania. Some speakers overcame great odds, some led through passion, and others dedicated themselves to humanitarian efforts, but every single speaker became my role model.

Build-a-Leader activity

Build-a-Leader activity

In addition to speakers, RYLArians experienced interactive opportunities such as a service summit with representatives from UPMC Children’s Hospital, Penn State Thon, the Red Cross, Team Tassy, the Caring Place, and more. Each of us brainstormed ideas for our own service projects, from a costume carwash to a Race Through Time. Every night, RYLArians bonded through social activities such as a movie night, dance party, The Romantic Era concert, dinner with the Ambridge Rotary, karaoke, and a final program.

Everyone singing All of Me at the final program!

Everyone singing “All of Me” at the final program

For me, the best part about RYLA was not leadership training in its traditional sense, but the personal growth that I experienced. I distinctly remember when the students and counselors sat around in a circle and shared their personal stories – not lighthearted small-talk, but our innermost thoughts, fears, and aspirations that we may have never shared with our close friends.

In one short week, 30 teenagers who were strangers became family. We may end up becoming government/business/social leaders, or we may simply take initiative to better our schools and homes. RYLA made every student realize their potential to be a compassionate, creative, service-minded and motivated leader. There’s something profoundly beautiful about that.



Grace JinGrace Jin is a senior at North Allegheny Senior High School. She has edited for VARIATIONS magazine, won Scholastics awards, and published multiple art and writing pieces on Teen Ink print magazine. Grace lives in McCandless and loves to play piano, paint, and eat ice-cream.


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