With motivational speeches, team-building activities and interactive experiences, hundreds of high school students from around northwest Georgia learned how to be better leaders at the sixth annual Youth Leadership Summit on Tuesday.

The summit, at the Dalton Convention Center, was hosted by Tom Graves, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia's 14th Congressional District, which includes Whitfield County and Murray County.

In addition to Graves, speakers included Ashley G. Preisinger, the former president of the Emory Proton Therapy Center who also served as chief executive officer for two years of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, and Rennie Curran, who was a captain on the University of Georgia's football team and who was named first-team All-America by CBSSports.com after leading the SEC in tackles with 116 as a junior in 2009.

"This is going to be one of the most exciting days of your school year," Graves told the students, emphasizing the summit "has nothing to do with politics."

"This has everything to do with you," he said. "This is all about you today."

Nearly two dozen area high schools sent students to the conference, and more than 10 countries were represented, Graves said. High school students are at "a decision point in life," as they begin to make choices regarding further education, as well as careers, and "you can do amazing things, (but) it all starts with dreaming big."

"That's what we're about today," he added. "We're here to inspire you."

The summit began in 2014 to give northwest Georgia students an opportunity to learn leadership skills from local and national leaders while networking with their peers from high schools across the congressional district, according to Danielle Stewart, Graves' communications director. Each year, Graves asks teachers and school administrators to recommend students to attend the summit, and more than 1,500 students have done so since its inception.

Preisinger urged the students to act as if they won't fail, and, if they do fail, to "get back up."

"Fear of failure is natural," she said. "Block out the noise, and believe in yourself."

The bigger the dream, the greater the chance of failure, she acknowledged. However, "no setback is either final or fatal, as long as you get back up when you're knocked down."

Students also need to develop the ability to let go, because "you can't grow until you let go," as well as understand the value of investing in themselves, she said. "Investing in yourself will always pay rich dividends."

David Willoughby, an alumnus of the summit, told those in attendance they shouldn't assume they always have all the answers. Instead, they should be willing to listen to others, he said. "Obstacles we face have been conquered by others," and they're typically willing to share their advice.

Willoughby, who is studying osteopathy — medicine that emphasizes physical manipulation of muscle tissue and bones — first became interested in health care when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, he said. "It made me want to show the same kindness to others" that doctors and nurses had treated his mother with.

Natalie Vance, a senior at Murray County High School, attended the conference last year as a junior and found it so valuable she returned again on Tuesday.

Because speakers have such diverse backgrounds, "you can hear the different (paths) they took to become leaders," Vance said. At the summit, "you learn how to be a better leader and get a fresh set of ideas."

Vance is passionate about community involvement, leadership and local politics, and she plans to study medicine at the University of North Georgia, but her ultimate goal is to return to Murray County and become involved in local politics, either as a candidate or working behind the scenes.

She knows she was learning life lessons at the summit that will assist her in future endeavors, she said. "This is something you learn outside the classroom, something not taught in schools."

The fact that the summit has grown significantly from 173 students in 2014 to 523 this year is a testament to the value schools see in exposing students to an event where they can be "encouraged and inspired," Graves said. The schools in his district "all want students to do well and achieve big things in life."

Because of his own humble upbringing — he grew up in a single-wide trailer on a tar and gravel road — Graves can connect with students in his district who often come from similar circumstances, and he and other speakers at the summit demonstrate that "you can still do extraordinary things," he said. "That can be their future, if they choose."

Preisinger grew up in Jasper, and she was the first student from Pickens High School to apply to Georgetown University, she said. In fact, she was the first student to apply from Pickens to most of the schools she applied to, and while it would have been easier to capitulate to the long odds against her, she pressed forward and attended Georgetown.

"Just give it a go," she said. "You'll figure it out."

Indeed, local youth can study any field, including medicine, no matter their background or obstacles in their path, said Willoughby. "Routine and consistency are more important than drive or motivation."

Willoughby, for example, looks forward every day to studying medicine.

Graves picked up his work ethic and aspirations from his parents, John and Elaine, who were both in attendance on Tuesday, and he hopes students at the summit will also aim high for their futures.

"I want them to persist past their potential," he said. "Do you just want to be average, to have a mediocre life, or are you dreaming?"

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