UTICA, N.Y. (WUTR/WFXV/WPNY) – Ninth grade is a critical year for young kids transitioning from junior high to senior high. To help students transit smoothly, a special, one-day educational program was held today at SUNY Polytechnic Institute (SUNY Poly).

“We gathered over 24 districts and it is a partnership with ICAN and Utica National Insurance Group and three BOCES here in Upstate New York and with 2,500 students and really talented educators. We are having really courageous conversation and we are diving deep,” said Erin Gruwell, author, teacher, and the program’s keynote speaker.

Starting from 8:30 in the morning, students were assigned to 29 different breakout sessions where they were engaged in courses ranging from self-care, leadership, and challenging activities, to career development.

“I like that we are learning about self-advocacy and that we are getting to know new people from different schools. I think it will help me find my career because we were talking about different careers and career types,” said Isabella Plescia, a ninth-grade student at Whitesboro High School.

“I think it was very helpful for me because I know more about mechanical stuff because mechanical is the major that I want to go into,” said Antonio Pagliaro, a ninth-grade student at Whitesboro High School.

“We know that as we emerge from the pandemic, we have seen the toll that stake in isolation and remote learning that disconnect from social networks that have impacted students in terms of their mental health. We see anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, and suicide laudation all on the rise. So the best thing we can do is to increase our protective factors. And one of the most effective protective factors is social connections. So we were able to bring students together, to provide experience in a fun and experiential way is super powerful,” said Jeremy Butler, Chief Administrative Officer at ICAN.

Following the breakout session, keynote speakers Erin Gruwell and Liz Murray, both New York Times bestselling book authors delivered a courageous speech based on their personal journey. The aim is to tell students that wherever difficulties they face, they can fall forward and be resilient to achieve what they want. Hard times that we all go through are also part of the journey that serves as the trajectory to find your voice and dream. We can have a moonshot for whatever we aspire to do.

During the program, students receive a drawstring bag and journal to document their thoughts and feelings throughout the year as they manage adversity and keep feeling hopeful about the future.

Organizers are expecting to make it a beneficial annual event for years to come.

“This is something we hope we can do year after year. This is our first try at it. And we will be building upon it next year,” said John Acee, Educational Institution Segment Specialist at Utica National Insurance Group.