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Lompoc High School student Denise Robles guided a team of five high-schoolers across a dangerous river at Hancock College on Tuesday, a game with the objective of using carpet squares as stepping stones to get across a patch of grass dubbed the "acid river." 

Robles and her team finished first in the competition by using communication and teamwork to safely cross. 

She is one of the participants in Hancock College's first-ever Leadership Academy, a weeklong program where local high-schoolers are participating in group-building and communication exercises before starting their senior year. 

“I’ve absorbed a lot of discipline because most teenagers don’t want to wake up early and come to this,” Robles said. “But it’s impacted my life in a positive way. So I chose to come here. Plus just being able to talk comfortably in front of people has impacted me the most.”

Eleven students from Lompoc and St. Joseph high schools and Orcutt Academy have gathered in a classroom inside the Student Center, as well as the lawn outside, as Hancock instructors guide them through activities that require communication, cohesion and direction. 

Each school nominated its student representatives, who hold a GPA over 4.0, to take part in the program Hancock College is both hosting and funding, said public information specialist Chris McGuiness.

The college has also provided both breakfast and lunch for participants. 

“This program is our first high school leadership camp,” said Christine Espinoza, a Hancock career-readiness specialist. “We offered it to our local high schools, and three of them recommended their students to come to our program.” 

Espinoza, program assistant Rebecca Jacobs and head of the Career Center Tom Lamica have teamed up to run the Leadership Academy. 

During the program, which has taken place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day this week, students have jotted down notes on how to become effective leaders at their schools or in their future careers inside the Student Center.

They then headed outside for team-bonding activities.

Instructors aim to keep the students engaged during the six-hour seminars, mainly by going outside. 

“We’re giving these students an opportunity to develop their leadership skills through hands-on activities,” Espinoza said. “One of the biggest things to make sure that we didn’t do was to be in the classroom all day.”  

In addition Tuesday's game of "acid river," the students participated in a game of "The human knot."

The game required participants to grab each other's hands and attempt to untie a knot without letting go of each other's hands.  

“Through these activities, they’re working on teamwork and working on communication, plus adaptability,” Espinoza said. “Basically, all of those soft skills that are needed as you’re becoming a leader or working on your future.”

Each activity comes with a learning aspect attached, Jacobs said. 

“The most important part of every activity is: What did we learn from it? How does this relate to leadership and your career? The value is really what comes out after the activities,” Jacobs said.  

Espinoza said that each student has learned patience along with developing camaraderie.

“They know if they work together, it takes time to build that relationship, to listen and getting to know who they’re working with,” Espinoza said.  

Students concluded the program Friday by speaking in front of business leaders, including Susan Appel, assistant vice president of Rabobank, Santa Maria; Rebecca Trott, coordinator at Family Partnership Charter School; and June Aiello, major gifts officer at Hancock College.

McGuinness anticipates making the Leadership Academy an annual event on the campus. 

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