When one hears the word “risk,” images of jumping out of airplanes at high speeds and altitudes are naturally conjured up. But falling from the sky is not the only type of risk, nor is it the type of risk involved in my story. “You have to go to LYS.” My sister had been saying that to me since day one of her return from the Louisiana Youth Seminar. LYS, a leadership seminar for incoming high school sophomores, juniors and seniors, is held each year in Baton Rouge during the third week of July. This information was all I knew of the program when I registered. I did not have the slightest notion of what happens during the week or what it is really all about. But I registered all the same, and it was only after I did that I realized what I had done. I did not know a single soul attending other than my sister (my first year was her third and final year), and I had no idea what to expect. So come July 20th, 2008, with my sunglasses that felt like goggles and my backpack that felt like a parachute, I stepped up into the minivan that looked suspiciously like a jet and took off for Baton Rouge.
LYS takes place at Louisiana State University, which is approximately one hour away from my house by car. That first drive to LYS, however, seemed more like five hours. “Erin, what if I don’t make any friends? What if they don’t like me?” I managed to say this at least ten times before we got to the LSU campus. My sister assured me that I was being unreasonable, telling me that LYS has an atmosphere of community where nobody would judge me. It wasn’t until I arrived that I fully understood what she meant.
Our car pulls up to the campus. Immediately we are met by screaming, excited counselors between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two who are running towards our car ready to take my luggage. My heart races as I unfasten my seatbelt and slide the van’s door open. It’s time to jump. So I jump. I jump right into the week, deciding that I should put all of myself into it and not hold back. I soon discovered that the Louisiana Youth Seminar is a place that only “works” for someone if they give of their time, efforts, attention, and talents completely. I had already jumped, so I threw myself into the program, allowing myself to get passionate about everything I did. Through the program, my musical, creative, and artistic skills were put to use, and my ability to relate to people was enhanced. I found that LYS is a place that required me to open up with new people as quickly as possible. I found myself thrown into a vast jumble of people who had come from various different backgrounds and locations. By the end of the week, it was not only easier for me to communicate with and open up to people different from me, but these people ended up being some of my closest friends. Over the next three years, LYS gave me a knack for communication, a confidence in myself, and an environment in which I could take risks and try new things without being judged, just as Erin had told me it would. I found myself jumping over and over again: running for “political office,” trusting brand new people enough to share life stories, stepping up and taking the lead when a leader was needed, singing and giving speeches in front of the whole delegation (as a theatre person, being on stage did help with this one), and striking up conversations with strangers. Through these risks I took, I grew and developed into someone I respect. I learned that my experiences transformed me not into a different person, but into the best version of myself.
“…A third year delegate, her spunk and creativity have offered so much to this group and to this program. She loves LYS more than most delegates I know and has invested herself completely in the seminar.” My eyes water as I listen to my counselor on the stage of the LSU Union Ballroom. My newfound friends glance at me with smiles on their faces. “That is why I’m happy to announce that our ‘Outstanding Group Member of the Week’ is Emily Classen.” Even though it was not a colossal award, I remember how proud of myself I was that day as I went onstage to receive it. That was my last day of LYS, but as my counselor Parker told me that year, “LYS goes with you everywhere. It’s up to you to take what you’ve learned at seminar and live it.” This is what I try to do every day: recapture the lessons I’ve learned and the sense of confidence and respect for myself that I possessed at the seminar. In doing this, I hope to benefit myself, those around me, and the communities in which I am involved. Since I started LYS two summers ago, I find that I make friends more easily and resolve conflicts more efficiently because of my improved communication skills and self-assurance. I am also more willing to take risks because “putting myself out there” at LYS helped me realize that I might have talents for things that I do not know about. This all started with that first jump I took. I was worried about attending LYS due to the fact that nobody I knew was going, but this ended up being the greatest benefit of all. Since nobody at the seminar knew me, I got the chance to make a new first impression on everyone there and be exactly the person I want to be. This opportunity is one that inspires me every day to be that person. On July 23rd, 2010, my feet gently hit the ground and my open parachute falls in a bundle beside me. I have returned from LYS for the last time, trophy in hand. “Parker, I can’t leave,” I had cried that morning. “LYS is my favorite thing on Earth. I’m going to miss it too much. It’s why I am the person that I am today.” He said to me, “Emily, LYS didn’t make you that person. You did. You just used LYS to do it.”
By taking chances and being open to the lessons that the program has to offer, I truly became the best version of myself. I carry that truth with me and remind myself of my capabilities whenever I am able. By taking the risks I did, I was taught that the limitations I put on myself are very often false. I find it astonishing that I once felt nervous resentment for the seminar and now I have an “I love LYS” sticker on the laptop on which I am typing. It just goes to show that I may never know the good that comes from taking a chance and that sometimes to jump is the only way.