For some area students, summer is a time to kick back, to while away the days by pools or lakes with friends or take a family road trip to the beach. But for others, the time off is a chance to take advantage of unique opportunities. We spoke with three students who are starting the school year with a new experience to share.

noelle burkey, westminster christian academy
Senior Noelle Burkey’s summer takes the concept of ‘sleepaway camp’ to new heights. She recently returned to St. Louis after six weeks staying with a host family in Seoul, South Korea. She went as part of the U.S. State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program, which promotes critical language learning by providing scholarships to high school students who participate in immersion programs.

Noelle says she got a taste for foreign travel last summer when she spent two weeks in Spain as part of Westminster’s Summer Seminars. The courses are experiential learning opportunities that take place outside the traditional classroom and are designed to integrate activity, curriculum and community. “Studying and traveling in Spain gave me a newfound appreciation for other languages and cultures, so when the opportunity to study in another foreign country came up, I knew I had to take it,” Noelle says. “I also am part Korean, so I was committed to the chance to learn more about my heritage as well as the opportunity to learn Korean to better communicate with my grandparents.”

Noelle applied to the program last October and was selected in March. She traveled to South Korea with 50 other students from all over the U.S. She notes that while she has stayed in big cities before, Seoul feels different. “It’s very high-tech, busy, efficient and extremely clean,” she says.

Pictured above: Burkey wears a traditional hanbok at Gyeongbokung Palace in Seoul.

Sara Isaacson presents a pro-speech on asylum seekers at CONA.

sara isaacson, st. joseph’s academy
This summer, Sara Isaacson returned to North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains to take part for the second time in the YMCA’s Youth Conference on National Affairs (CONA). And this year may have sealed the deal as far as this senior’s career path. The six-day conference, started more than 50 years ago, brings young participants from all over the country to debate national or international issues and find creative solutions to problems they may have been unaware of before. “It also helps us better communicate with those we disagree with and teaches us how to find common ground and speak respectfully about hot topic issues,” Sara explains.

Her interest in the conference was sparked by a school-based YMCA program called Youth and Government (YAG), which involves a student-run, hands-on simulation of Missouri state government in Jefferson City for three days each winter. She attended the Blue Ridge conference with 25 other students from Missouri and was among 650 youth from all over the country. “I would love to do something political or run a nonprofit,” Sara says. “St. Joe has definitely shown me how much I love leadership and service, and CONA reminds me how much I love politics and fighting for what I am passionate about. If something that blended those two comes along, sign me up!”

Kate Riley at the North American Irish Dance Championship this summer

kate riley, forsyth school
Summer makes Kate Riley feel like dancing, and that’s exactly what this fifth-grader at Forsyth School did. On July 4, she competed against 92 other fourth- and fifth-graders in the North American Irish Dance Championship in Orlando, Florida, and ended up placing 28th. Kate started ballet and tap lessons when she was 5 but says she found them slow. “Irish dancing seemed more exciting, and because of my Irish heritage on my father’s side, it appealed to me,” she explains. Irish dance is characterized by fast leg work (in either soft or hard shoes) and rigid arms. “I feel I do best when I can kick my legs up really high,” Kate says, adding that competitors are required to dance in full Irish dress.

She is no stranger to fierce competition. This past March, she traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, to take part in the World Championship. There, she placed 74th among 150 children from across the globe. Her passion certainly keeps her busy. Kate attends dance class five times a week and practices at home one hour each day. She takes part in smaller competitions throughout the year and says she dances around the school playground whenever the mood strikes! “It was so thrilling to watch her,” says Heidy Riley, Kate’s mom.