MFEE Conference Helps Teens and Families Survive and Thrive in the 21st Century


Braving the bitter cold on a Saturday morning, over 200 Montclair-area students and their caregivers came together to glean inspiration and knowledge from fellow community members. The Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE) held its first mini-conference, titled Life After High School: Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, on the Montclair State University Campus on Saturday, January 6th, 2017. Participants started the morning in University Hall, warming up and socializing with bagels and hot morning drinks before the program began.

The conference opened with Masiel Rodriguez-Vars thanking the crowd and the sponsors who helped make it happen. True to form, the three main sponsors were all community supporters and boosters: The Montclair Mounties, Partners for Health Foundation, and the locally based College Application Camp & Coaching.

Emery Bergmann introduces her viral video.

Rodriguez-Vars then introduced Emery Bergmann, a Montclair High School 2017 graduate, now at Cornell University, viral video about transitioning to college life summed up part of the inspiration for the conference. Before playing the video, Bergmann spoke about making it, being surprised it made such a splash, and hearing thanks and commiseration from people going through all different types of transitions, including a woman who wrote to thank her for expressing the feelings she’d been having after retirement.

Students traveled to Dickson Hall to attend workshops that focused on inspiring, grounding, and preparing students to help prepare them for Life After High School. Montclair High School alumni factored heavily in the presentations. Topaz Jones, a musician and producer, led a popular workshop on Living Your Passion, Kamillah Knight, an MFEE board member, helped students with “elevator pitches” and how to leave a positive first and last impression, Recent MHS Alums Brett Epstein, Emery Bergmann, and Amiri Bradley presented about the emotions involved in transitioning from high school, and Israel Cronk, of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, focused on the steps involved in building connections. Other presentations included local business owners Nicci Silva (Dolly Moo), Marc Williams (Young’s World of Beauty),  Jeff Beck (East Side Mags), and many more came together to offer a wide and diverse offering for the students to choose from.

The parent panel addressed moving from caregiver to coach.

Parents and caregivers weren’t left out in the cold while the teens traveled between workshops. First, they attended a panel on Parents as Transition Guides, moderated by MFEE board member Chelle Wilson. The parent panel’s main takeaway was how raise teens to have “agency.” Diana Cusumano, of the Jed Foundation, emphasized this saying, parents should get comfortable transitioning from “caregiver to coach” as their children grow. Adult participants chose from four workshops ranging from “Parenting in the Age of Technology” to “Launching Teens and Young Adults.” Discussion was often robust and filled with tips and strategies from those who had “been there” with their own teenagers.

To close the Mini-Conference, MFEE executive director Masiel Rodriguez-Vars asked students to share nuggets of wisdom they had learned in their workshops. This was the day’s highlight for Rodriguez-Vars. Teens shared things like, “I learned that it’s most important to find a job that I love” and “Who you know matters, and I can step out of my comfort zone to meet new people” and “I have inner beauty, and I want to find ways to share that more with others.”

Summing up one of the goals of the day, the MFEE director stated, “We are thrilled that students now have a network of local adults who they can continue to reach out to for advice, inspiration, and possible mentorship. We cannot thank our dynamic and generous workshop leaders enough.” Every participant went home with a booklet of local and state resources for support services as well as the contact information for workshop leaders.

Topaz Jones (left) performed, presented, and gave time to fans.

As a closing highlight, Topaz Jones treated the crowd to two songs in his musical repertoire, making sure to get everyone on their feet. And to further emphasize the focus on community support, one MHS senior — an aspiring jazz drummer — who missed the workshop with Topaz Jones due to transportation issues, caught a ride home with Jones and enjoyed a one-on-one mentoring session!

MFEE plans to make this an annual conference, so look forward to participating in the years to come.

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