Program tackles difficult questions regarding life, religion


by Sydney Vrban, Special to The Simpsonian

INDIANOLA, Iowa — In its second year, the Simpson Youth Academy offers leadership opportunities to Simpson students and encourages high school students to wrestle with life’s big questions.

SYA is a program designed to guide high school students as they study religion and examine their personal faith. The program is made possible by Lilly Endowment Inc.

Director of the Simpson Youth Academy Eric Rucker is recruiting Simpson students to act as mentors for next summer.

“The Simpson Youth Academy is grounded in the conviction that high school students are leaders now,” Rucker said. “We respect them enough to challenge them with real questions, and we respect them enough to let them be the leaders that they can be.”

Simpson students act as mentors for a group of high school participants throughout the program. Together, the group asks deeper, more difficult questions regarding their faith as it relates to social justice.

“The primary qualities we’re looking for in mentors are a passion and ability to explore questions about faith and social justice with youth,” Rucker said. “There’s this tendency in our culture to disrespect high school students by treating them like children who don’t have the ability to wrestle with real questions.”

SYA mentors must be comfortable engaging in this difficult dialogue and leading students in these conversations. Training is offered prior to the start of the program to help mentors guide the scholars through more difficult questions.

“As a mentor there’s so much I learned from the camp that I was not expecting,” senior Kelsey Schott said. “I learned so much about myself throughout the process. Even after studying religion for three years, I learned so much more about my faith.”

Mentors and high school students will explore these questions of faith while living on campus for over a week. Mentors work to build a community for their mentees during this time. They also guide participants as they attend service trips and engage in workshops regarding faith and justice.

These experiences educate young students on issues such as homelessness, poverty, immigration and climate change.

Mentors facilitate conversations in their groups based on what participants experienced and how they believe their personal faith relates to these issues.

Once the first portion of the program is complete, high school students rejoin their individual communities. They must then apply their newfound knowledge toward creating their own service projects.

“It’s our responsibility to provide young people with the tools to prepare them to be strong people of faith,” Rucker said. “And to create morally responsible individuals who fight for social justice in the world.”

SYA will begin accepting mentor applications Nov. 1. Mentors stand to gain valuable leadership experience and are paid for their time.

“This is an opportunity — before you’re in the professional world, while you’re still trying to get some experience — to come beside high school students and help them listen to their own life, discover their gifts, gain confidence and maybe start to develop those tools to answer the question, ‘What might God be calling me to do in the world?’” Rucker said.

Bobbi Sullivan, director of career development and civic engagement, stressed the importance of participating in extracurricular activities.

“Employers and graduate schools seek well-rounded candidates,” Sullivan said. “While a college education is vitally important, hiring managers and selection committees also look for ways students have immersed themselves in activities outside of the classroom to prepare for their future.”

Applications for high school students are due Feb. 1.

For more information on the program or to apply, visit the SYA website or contact Rucker at [email protected].