When Jillian Ryan and Sean Furlong are asked about what they did during their summer vacations, they’ll each be able to provide a very unique answer.
Jillian, a rising senior at South Brunswick, and Sean, a junior-to-be at Midland Park, are among the 31 Student Ambassadors on the NJSIAA Student Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC). And from July 22-24, they represented the NJSIAA SAAC at the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) National Student Leadership Summit in Indianapolis.
They were accompanied on the trip by Colleen Maguire, the NJSIAA Director of Finance who also directs the SAAC program. The trip was helped made possible by New Jersey Advance Media, which sponsors the SAAC.
The NFHS National Student Leadership Summit featured 140 student representatives from throughout the country.
“I really enjoyed this trip,” said Jillian, a lacrosse player who is also the Student Council President at her Middlesex County school. “Whether it was the leadership seminars or the late nights spent playing games and bonding, I could not be more grateful for the people who helped me have this opportunity.”
The students followed a jam-packed schedule that featured speakers, discussions and interactive presentations, field trips and nighttime socializing. The students had no trouble making new friends and learning about places beyond home.
“We had four seminars spread over two days and an opening and closing ceremony with public speakers,” Jillian said. “At each of the seminars, we did activities regarding inclusivity, diversity and how all of that plays a role in our ability to lead and how to lead. Some activities consisted of role playing scenarios, moving to sides of the room for agreeing or disagreeing with a statement, and creating diagrams of our future plans regarding college and all that comes with it.”
Jillian, who had never traveled beyond the East Coast prior to the trip, roomed with a girl from South Carolina. Sean was paired with a roommate from Pittsburgh.
“Meeting people from across the country was awesome and eye-opening to see how different students’ lives are,” said Sean, a member of the soccer and golf teams who is also class president at his Bergen County school. “My friend from Arkansas did not attend any of the late night social events, because he was used to going to bed by 9 p.m. and waking by 4 a.m. to do chores. It was much different than a North Jersey student’s life.”
“It was so cool to be able to meet people from all around the country,” Jillian said. “Hearing people do sports like barrel racing (a rodeo event) or that others didn’t know what lacrosse is, was certainly a surprise and very interesting to talk about. On the bus ride to our Special Olympics event, I was sitting with representatives from Kentucky, New York and New Hampshire, and we all had a fun conversation about our slang. We debated such things as soda or pop and sneakers or tennis shoes.”
Jillian and Sean were also asked questions from the other students about New Jersey.
“After introducing myself, I frequently got the question as to why I didn’t sound like the people from Jersey Shore or like any New Jersey accent on television,” Jillian said. “I had to explain that a lot of people actually don’t talk like that. Another question I was asked whether New Jersey had a beach. I laughed a little and pulled up a map of the U.S. to show them that an entire side of New Jersey was a beach.
“Lastly, and to me the most interesting question, people asked me why Sean and myself were so nice and polite when what they had seen of New Jersey on television seemed rougher,” she said. “Again, I had to clear up the common misconceptions of New Jersey on television.”
Prior to the trip, both Jillian and Sean expressed an interest in one particular event on the schedule - a Day 2 trip to engage in Unified Sports activities with a group of Indiana Special Olympians. The afternoon was so enjoyable that it exceeded their expectations. When the games were over, the bonding continued with a pizza party and impromptu dance-off.
“The Summit from beginning to end was great,” Sean said. “Meeting new people from across the country, listening and learning from empowering speakers, to helping out with the Indiana Special Olympics.”
The meetings also touched on issues related to high school sports, including one in particular that was a hot topic amongst the entire NJSIAA SAAC membership during last school year - time management, and what to do about it to make student’s lives better and healthier.
“One issue that seemed to be a nationwide hot topic was summer practices,” Sean said. “Most athletes liked the idea of a summer blackout period where nothing is allowed - practices, workouts and meetings - for a certain amount of time. Most student athletes felt we needed a break from sports in the summer, and many reasons were mentioned, like physical health, mental health and allowing time for a family vacation.”
“The biggest issue it seemed we all had in common was our ability to manage time,” Jillian said. “Whether you lived on a farm or lived in a city, between school, athletics, homework, work, family time and religious commitments, there was simply not enough time in the day to relax and breathe. Another issue that seemed to generate a lot of conversation was transgender athletes and how the rules regarding them affect the competition level in every state. There seemed to be no consensus on how to approach the issue.”
Now that they are back home, both students are ready to apply what they experienced in Indianapolis.
“I am so incredibly excited to bring back all that I have learned to my student council, school and SAAC,” Jillian said. “Sean, Ms. Maguire and I have already begun to discuss what activities we’d like to bring back to try at the NJSIAA.”
Another thing the students will do is keep in touch with the people they met in Indiana.
“Most students shared social media and cell numbers,” Sean said. “I look forward to staying in touch with the friends I made.”
“I definitely feel that I am more prepared to head off to college than I was before I got on that plane to Indiana,” Jillian said. “It’s a strange thing to be thrown into a room with 140 teenagers you have never met before when you’ve always lived in the same town your whole life with the same people. Introducing myself and making friends with people I’ve never seen before was a skill I had to remember from kindergarten, but after the first few people it became exciting to find out where someone was from and to learn all about them.”
“I greatly appreciate New Jersey Advance Media’s sponsorship of the NJSIAA SAAC and our trip to the Leadership Summit, as well as Ms. Maguire’s availability to chaperone us on the trip,” Sean said. “It was an opportunity I will be forever grateful for.”