Making connections


S.C. Youth Leadership Conference introduces yesterday’s executives to tomorrow’s potential leaders

Bill Moss was listening to the radio in 2014 when he heard about a program that he thought would be a perfect fit for the Hilton Head Island area.

The interview had nothing to do with retirees, golf or the beach. It was a discussion about a youth leadership program at the University of Southern Maine.

Moss, who spent a career in corporate management and retired to Hilton Head in 2002, realized he was hearing a great opportunity to match the area’s large population of retired executives with tomorrow’s potential leaders.

“The more I learned about the program, the more I became enthused about it for here,” he says.

Mia Leonard and Bill MossIt turns out Moss’ hunch was right. The S.C. Youth Leadership Conference is heading into its third year at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, jumping from 38 high school students in 2015 to 70 attending this year’s sold-out event from May 18 to 21.

It began with Moss volunteering as conference executive director and establishing an advisory board of retired and active leaders from the fields of education, business and government. The nonprofit program is designed for high school sophomores in South Carolina. Principals or guidance counselors select students with strong leadership potential to represent their schools. The students stay in dorms at USCB’s Hilton Head Island Gateway Campus, hear from motivational speakers about leadership, and perform a day of volunteer work. Professors from state colleges discuss their science, technology, engineering and math programs. Students who complete the program can also compete for college scholarships. About 25 of the students attending this year are from Beaufort County, and five are from Jasper County. In all, 45 schools from 13 counties will be represented.

The program is organized entirely by volunteers, local school administrators and USCB staff. Only USCB resident assistants, who oversee the high school students in the dorms, get paid by the program.

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The goal during the four-day event is to inspire the students and expose them to the basic qualities of leadership, such as perseverance, creativity and responsibility. But Moss says that’s just the beginning.

“The key to this program that distinguishes it from other programs is we want them to practice their leadership skills,” he says. “Leaders are made, not born.”

The program is working on ways to follow up with the students after the conference to encourage them to take on leadership roles in their schools and communities.

This year, 10 of the students participating in the conference are program alumni; they’ll be serving as junior counselors for the new attendees.

One of those returning students is Hilton Head Island High School graduate Nicole Arnold, now a freshman at Loyola University. She attended the inaugural event in 2015 and spoke at last year’s conference. She will be this year’s keynote speaker.

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“I was inspired so much,” Arnold says of her first conference. “I was that much more inspired to go out and do something awesome.”

That “something awesome” occurred last summer when Arnold rode her bike 71 days across the United States. She plans to discuss the challenges she overcame on her 4,200-mile journey with this year’s attendees. She says she wants to motivate them “to make their lives more exciting.”

Moss hopes more alumni like Arnold will stay involved with the conference to help younger students. The program is also developing webinars for alumni to watch to encourage them to continue to practice leadership.

Along with alumni follow-up, Moss wants the conference to continue to grow. After this month’s event, the advisory board will discuss how to expand.

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“Ultimately, our goal is for this to become a statewide program,” he says. “We know we have a good model, but how do we get more students involved?”

He sees the state’s businesses, particularly its large employers like Boeing, as potential linchpins to that growth. Company representatives could discuss with students the qualities they seek in employees and potentially help inspire their businesses’ future leaders. Hearing from employers would also help students focus on setting career goals and making the right choices.

“This is a time in their lives when things begin to become really important,” Moss says. “They have to appreciate the fact that they only come this way once, and take responsibility for that, so that 10 years down the road they don’t say, ‘Gee, I wished I knew then what I know now.’”

S.C. Youth Leadership Conference

Who: 70 sophomores representing 45 schools from 13 counties in South Carolina
What: Four days of motivational speakers, classes and volunteer work
When: May 18-21
Where: University of South Carolina Beaufort’s Hilton Head Gateway Campus