WORCESTER, Mass. – After seven weeks of professional learning experience, 13 local high school students graduated from the Worcester Youth Leadership Institute on Friday at a ceremony held at City Hall.

Led by the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, the program introduces students to a variety of businesses, Worcester landmarks, and local mentors.

During their four-hour, weekly sessions, participants in the Class of 2019 summer leadership program visited companies including, among others, Chamber members Mercantile Center, Unum, and MassHire Worcester Career Center.

Sponsored by GFI Partners and Reliant Medical Group, the goal of WYLI “is simple;” said Timothy P. Murray, president and CEO of the Chamber, in a statement; to “expose high schoolers to a myriad of businesses, leaders, mentors, and possibilities available in their own communities.”

Calling the group “our future leaders,” Mr. Murray expressed a desire for them to “know and understand [that] their community can offer a unique college experience, fascinating job opportunities, and provide insight and perspective on the city’s history, leadership, business community, and government make-up.”

At the Aug. 9 graduation ceremony, Dr. Mattie Castiel, commissioner of Health and Human Services for the City of Worcester, teared up as she reflected on her own journey from a student to a leadership role. “As a young person, I never had the opportunity to learn and have conversations about leadership,” she said.

The 2019 WYLI graduating class poses with Mr. Murray, Ms. Castiel, and WYLI Coordinator, Walter Jovel, at their graduation ceremony on Aug. 9. Photo by Dominique Goyette-Connerty.

The 2019 WYLI graduating class poses with Mr. Murray, Ms. Castiel, and WYLI Coordinator, Walter Jovel, at their graduation ceremony on Aug. 9. Photo by Dominique Goyette-Connerty.

Recalling the difficulties of growing up in Cuba before migrating to the United States, Ms. Castiel said everyone who she saw “represented as leaders were people who had power and people who had money” and felt she did not see herself represented among that group.

Calling the participants’ commitment “inspiring,” she commended the Class of 2019 for the “important dialogues” concerning active participation in their community and “how they want to contribute to our world.”

Speaking to the graduates, WYLI Coordinator Walter Jovel noted how much the group matured over the summer. He was “impressed” by the students’ initiative and attentiveness as well as how close they became in the short time.

Graduate Laylani Ramos agreed. She appreciated the “safe place” WYLI provided her and enjoyed growing closer to co-participants. Ms. Ramos said her favorite part of the program was getting to “communicate and meet with different people.”

Also a 2019 WYLI graduate, Darrell Opuku-Kwateng said the most valuable thing he learned was “to be an advocate.” It’s important, he said, for him and fellow graduates to “[make] something of this role” by continuing “to be leaders in school, leaders in our community, and leaders for young people” in Worcester.

Prior to presenting the certificates, Mr. Jovel reminded those gathered of the strong WYLI alumni network. To-date, more than 100 students have graduated from the institute over the past six years and maintain a strong bond in the WYLI alumni group.

In an effort to develop and mentor Worcester’s “future leaders” and “talented workforce,” as Mr. Murray called it, WYLI launched in 2014 and is a partnership program between the Chamber, the Central Massachusetts Workforce Investment Board, United Way of Central MA, Worcester Community Action Council, and the City of Worcester’s Youth Opportunities Office.

All students in WYLI participate in the city’s YouthWorks program — a federally-funded effort established to create summer jobs for low-income, at-risk, inner-city youth between the ages of 14 and 21. These individuals are nominated through their YouthWorks employers.

Dominique Goyette-Connerty is a Communications and Marketing Associate at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. She can be reached via email.