Milton Hershey School: Amplifying student voices in 2021

Nicole Chynoweth, Contributing Writer //April 21, 2021

Milton Hershey School: Amplifying student voices in 2021

Nicole Chynoweth, Contributing Writer //April 21, 2021

When CPBJ last spoke with Sharice Johnson in July, the coordinator of student character and leadership development at Milton Hershey School was adapting her programs for the virtual space, trying to figure out how to still host the school’s annual female empowerment summit, Girls Grace.

Johnson and her team transformed the conference from a 12-hour, in-person event into a virtual event covering two and half hours and reaching more than 100 students with guest speakers, alumni panels and workshops focusing on positivity and building girls’ futures.

In 2021, imparting leadership lessons to students in the face of the pandemic remains a driving force in Johnson’s work, as well as the work of Student Government Association Coordinator Michelle Weber and Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Inclusion Fonati Abrokwa. They shared their goals for the year with Women in Leadership. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What have you learned since the Girls Grace event?

Johnson: I learned to keep my focus on the kids. With so many challenges of learning how to create a virtual event, managing being the committee leader and the committee director of the event, I had to manage multiple schedules. There were 12 women who helped with the event. Managing the strengths and availability to execute the event was challenging and took a lot of effort, but I kept the kids as my main focus. I reminded them that although we are dealing with stress and our schedules, that we’re here for the kids, and that was the force to keep us pushing through. Once we were done with the event, we felt so excited and proud to know that we were able to come together during such a hard time and make it happen for our girls. We planned it in two months, instead of our usual nine months.

Since we last spoke, I received a promotion. In my new role, I am creating social and emotional learning curriculum for students in K-12, so as our students are trying to find a sense of belonging and well-being, I am providing lesson plans for house parents and teachers to help them with our students. For instance, our social emotional learning theme right now is diversity and respect, so we create lessons based off of our themes for the month. I love creating curriculum. It’s something I’ve been passionate about. I’ve had an after-school program for 14 years and created my own curriculum. To be able to do that for all our students now is just incredible.

What do you hope to accomplish in your new role?

My main goal is to help our students find their voice. We have a schoolwide goal to amplify student voices. That’s a part of my professional agenda. With that in mind, I created a monthly, virtual open forum where we will discuss different topics that are relevant to our students. We’ll have guest speakers, trusted adults and up to 25 students in each session to discuss these topics that they normally don’t sit down to talk about. We want to provide them with a space to feel empowered to talk about it. It’s a vision I had in 2016. Sometimes the time is not right when you come up with innovative ideas, so I kept it in my back pocket. With this new focus for the school year and my new role, this fits perfectly.

It’s really about listening. How do they feel about things they’re seeing in their communities? Some of our kids have parents with diverse backgrounds. How are they treated in their communities? How do they advocate for each other? How do they have conversations with adults without being disrespectful? Some other topics are financial literacy. What does that look like? How do you manage your money to save for your future? We’ll explore careers that are spiking right now.

What tools have you used during the pandemic that you recommend to other businesswomen?

Weber: Being intentional in everything that we do. In a student-centered community, we really have to think of what we do, how we do it and what’s the purpose moving forward. Now more than ever, our students need us. For example, the events we have, they need mentorship and connection.

What leadership lessons do you want to share with students to prepare them for careers, especially during the pandemic?

I believe that this is a wonderful opportunity to realize that perspective and change are vital parts of what we do. They had to change gears and vehicles to do the same things we did before but look at them differently.

Like any challenge, this is an opportunity we never had before. If we do not view this as an opportunity to grow, learn and support each other, we will see it as a setback. This has actually put our kids at the forefront of teaching somebody like me more about growth, technology and how they communicate. I want to continue teaching them that this is a challenge that will make us better, stronger and more resilient to persevere through adversities in their futures. If they can come out strong and as well-prepared as they are through this pandemic, they can conquer anything.

The special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion is a new role at Milton Hershey School. What are you working on now?

Abrokwa: When you talk about this work in the corporate setting, you’re just focused on your employees, but we’re a home in the school as well. We’re looking to diversify our workplace and provide education in this context to our staff but also how do we do the same in education to provide outlets for kids as well. This work looks a little bit different for us with our unique setup. We started with creating a framework to align with our strategic plan. We identified four areas of impact to focus our work: students, workplace, alumni and our external relationships.

In my role specifically, it’s important to allow students to be heard in racial dialogues, racial equity and dialogue with them. I partnered with (Johnson) and we’re using a forum to survey our kids about issues they want to talk about. We’re educating them and having a space where they can dialogue in a civil way and letting them lead the conversation.

Our feedback after the first forum was powerful. They all felt heard. It was nice to have that opportunity. With the first forum, we partnered with student leaders from Lebanon Valley College and their assistant dean for engagement and inclusion. We partnered with them to help moderate the discussion. Students heard not just from their peers but young adults who are a step ahead of them.

Why is this work important to you?

As a graduate of this school, I really think it’s important that we create young leaders that are culturally competent in championing equity. If we can create an environment here where we leverage that work for our staff and create young people that go out into that space and are change agents, for me that’s a personal responsibility especially as a graduate. I think we’re in a time when we need more of that, and I think our young people are in a position to course-correct the mistakes of the generations before them.