From Wadley to Vestavia: Learn how AHSAA is developing high school student leaders statewide

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AHSAA Student Leadership Team in Spring 2021. Photo via AHSAA

Wanted: Future Role Models. Since 2015, Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) has hosted student-athletes from across the state to its annual Student Leadership Conference in Montgomery.

Each year, 16 juniors from the state’s eight high school athletic districts are chosen to participate in the two year program.

“The underlying mission of the AHSAA is to have education-based athletics,” said Brandon Dean, the director of the Athletic Directors and Coaches Association. 

“With this program, we try to develop the next generation of student athletes — the next generation of leaders in our communities. We do that by bringing students in for two days to bond with their peers from across the state, to learn about character development, leadership, and other important qualities they will need to grow into leaders.”

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AHSAA Student Leadership Team in Spring 2021. Photo via AHSAA

AHSAA is currently accepting applications from juniors for the 2021-22 school year. Learn all about the process and how to apply at the AHSAA Student Leadership Conference webpage. The deadline is December 10th.  

To learn more about the program, we talked to two extraordinary young women:

Cailin Birdsong, a current member of the Student Leadership Team from Wadley High School, and Hannah Vines, an alumnae of the program from Vestavia Hills High School, who now attends Auburn University

Here are their stories.

Cailin Birdsong – High School Students are Role Models

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Cailin Birdsong interview before Area Volleyball match. Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

When Cailin Birdsong finished eighth grade in Opelika, Alabama, she soon learned that instead of attending Opelika High School, a large 6A school with over 1200 students, she would be moving to the small town of Wadley in Randolph County.

Number of students at her new school in Wadley? A little over 400… kindergarten to high school.  

“It’s definitely different,” Birdsong said. “I love Wadley. Everybody is super close.”

Growing up in Opelika, her first experience with sports was t-ball and then softball. She was good enough to actually play travel softball. In junior high, she started playing volleyball. According to Birdsong, volleyball  “crept its way up to the top” and became one of her favorite sports. And there are a number of sports fighting for her attention. She also runs track, plays basketball and does cheer.

Her principal Lori Carlisle encouraged her to apply to this life-changing program.

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Wadley High School’s Cailin Birdsong spikes ball during area volleyball match. Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

“It really taught me some little things that you don’t really notice when you’re just on the court or on the field. It opened my eyes to stuff like making sure you’re leading by example,” she said.

In a small, close-knit community like Wadley, leadership matters. High school student-athletes are mentors and role models. 

“Sports provides you great leadership opportunities, especially with the younger kids,” Birdsong added. “When I moved to Wadley, all the younger kids obviously looked up to you when you’re playing varsity and everything. It’s a good opportunity to mentor them.”

Hannah Vines – A Rewarding Experience

Hannah Vines
Hannah Vines at Auburn University. Photo via Hannah Vines

“The  leadership program was definitely one of the most rewarding experiences I had during my time in high school,” exclaimed Hannah Vines, a participant in the AHSAA Student Leadership Conference from 2017 to 2018.

A graduate of Vestavia High School, Vines competed in volleyball, track and debate. Post-graduation, she toyed with the idea of playing sports in college, but settled on majoring in finance at Auburn University. Currently a junior, she is fresh off a summer internship with Goldman Sachs, the prestigious financial institution. 

Vines fondly remembers the AHSAA Student Leadership Conference, especially meeting and learning from student-athletes across Alabama—beyond Birmingham.

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Hannah Vines, Vestavia Hill High School, serving during volleyball match. Photo via Hannah Vines

“I was able to see things we have in common, learning from students from all over the state, and learning about my state as well. I really loved that experience.”

In addition to the AHSAA Student Leadership Conference, Vines, named the NFHS Heart of the Arts recipient for the AHSAA  as a senior,  was selected to represent Alabama at a national leadership conference in Indianapolis. The conference was hosted by the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) as well. 

“It was very similar to the state program, just on a much bigger scale,” she said. “Instead of meeting students from around the state, I was able to meet students from all across the country. I roomed with a girl from Idaho. After we did that conference, we were able to go back to the State Conference next spring and tell the new class what was happening on a national level. I learned a lot about myself and my leadership abilities, but also it was refreshing to learn from others.”

Vines concluded her interview with wise words about what she learned from the summer leadership conferences and high school sports. 

“High school athletics perfectly pair, having fun and learning valuable, intangible, lessons that are necessary for success in higher education and the professional world.”

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Wadley High School Volleyball team. Photo via Bham Now

“I think back to the internship I had with Goldman Sachs. High school sports helped me communicate and work with others on a team. I can trace that skillset all the way back to my time in our school athletics. It’s necessary to be able to learn how to work as a team, and also know your strengths as an individual.”

Apply Today

Do you know Alabama high school student-athletes who are leaders like Cailin Birdsong and Hannah Vines? Invite them to apply to the AHSAA Student Leadership Program.

Download the application form.

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Pat Byington
Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.
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