GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — The Rotary Youth Leadership Awards returned to Stockton University for its 40th conference this week, inviting 160 rising high school seniors from around the region.

“We love this place,” program Director James Puderbach said of Stockton. “And boy have we seen it change.”

Standing inside the theater at the Campus Center on Stockton’s Pinelands campus, Puderbach said when he started 32 years ago, the building he was in didn’t exist.

Although Stockton has undergone a transformation through the years, Puderbach said much of what happens at the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards conference, called RYLA by its attendees, has remained the same over four decades.

“We’re pretty old school. But we’ve incorporated technology, like you’ve seen today,” he said, referencing videos created by the students as part of an exercise about teamwork. “We could have not done that 10, 15 years ago. Everything was on paper.”

Puderbach said the program has adapted to the different ways teens learn and experience life, but leadership skills are a constant.

“To me, a leader is always a leader. The cream rises to the top,” he said.

Chase Spencer of Oakcrest High School said he was anxious when he was selected to attend RYLA about what the experience would be like.

“Coming here, I loved it. It was probably the best way to start my senior year,” the 17-year-old said.

Spencer said what he took away from the five-day program was how important other people are to his success and to have an open mind. He also met a fellow attendee who became his RYLA “best friend,” Julie.

Amy Jespersen, 16, of Bridgeton, an upcoming senior at Cumberland Regional High School, said that coming from a small town, she thought her opportunities were limited. RYLA showed her what is out there for her.

“I can see the wide variety of opportunities I have,” Jespersen said.

She also made a lot of new friends and learned new leadership and life skills.

“I learned that leaders come in all shapes and sizes, and it takes multiple people working together to make great ideas happen,” Jespersen said.

Riya Somaiya, 17, of Galloway, who will begin her senior year at Absegami High School in the fall, said she was nervous about attending the conference but got a lot out of it.

“I learned a lot about leadership and working together,” Somaiya said. “They taught us you never know what someone is going through.”

The RYLA conference at Stockton is one of two hosted by Rotary District 7505, which includes 78 volunteer service clubs from Toms River to Cape May. Students from the northern part of the district will begin their RYLA program next week at Monmouth University.

Each club selects one or more high school juniors to attend the five-day summer leadership camp. This year, 160 students from about 40 high schools in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties attended.

“These kids are already chosen in their high schools as some of the better kids, so all we’re trying to do is just push them a little further,” Puderbach said.

He said the program, which includes group activities, skill development and guest speakers, also gives the rising seniors college exposure.

This particular group of students he said were “very personable,” not shying away from introducing themselves and meeting new people within the first hour of arriving.

“This group interacted from the first day,” Puderbach said. “Without us saying, they were doing it themselves. We strive to do that because we believe personality or people skills is very important in leadership.”

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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