Seven Bedford High School students returned home, enlightened, inspired, and in some ways transformed from a mammoth national conclave earlier this spring.
And the passage of time hasn’t diminished the palpable excitement and gratification they garnered from the experience.
Reyna Matrona, Arushi Naidu, Roza Shaikh, Diya and Maya Singh, Bianca Tiwari, and Anya Yajnik were among some 22,000 students from throughout the United States and beyond at the DECA International Career Development Conference in Orlando, FL.
The organization called DECA was established more than 75 years ago as Distributive Education Clubs of America. Today DECA defines itself as “an integral proponent of a program of courses within the marketing, business management, finance, and hospitality and tourism career clusters, as well as entrepreneurship and personal financial literacy.”
Bedford High’s chapter of almost 60 students has grown exponentially over the past two years, according to the faculty advisor, Justine Flora, business education teacher at the high school.
DECA emphasizes a competitive events program that “directly supports the mission of preparing emerging leaders and entrepreneurs,” according to the organization’s philosophy. Flora explained that participants choose one of four areas – marketing, finance, hospitality, or business administration – then narrow down to one of dozens of specific areas.
The competition is executed through “role-play” or a research paper and presentation. Role-play is based on a case study, and judges evaluate entrants on how well they demonstrate “21st-century skills,” such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration, creativity, and innovation. There are also performance indicators, many of which are tied to customer service.
If a student team chooses role-play, “they have to take a multiple-choice exam each time they compete,” Flora explained. “At competition they have to think on their feet and come up with a solution.”
The research paper requirements focus not only on describing an idealized business, target market, and employee experience, but also a proposed strategic plan and budget. Competitors can modify the paper if they advance past the first round.
Initially, 27 BHS students, finishing in the top six, emerged from a regional competition in December, involving about 700 students from 18 public and private high schools inside Route 495 and mostly north of Route 9. At the state level, with 3,300 attending from nine districts, Flora said, “the competition gets harder and bigger. Role plays and exams usually get more challenging.”
Seven from BHS, divided into three groups, finished in the top five and qualified for the nationals.
Sophomores Shaikh and Tiwari chose a “role-play” approach in the category of team decision-making in business law and ethics. Their presentation rose all the way to international finalist.
The Singh sisters, also sophomores, used a similar format for their entry in the team decision-making classification of hospitality and tourism. Maya said she became involved with DECA after the BHS activity fair freshman year, and she needed a partner so she recruited her twin. They finished third in the state competition, focusing on social media marketing and a travel company.
Seniors Yajnik and Naidu and junior Matrona prepared a written research project in the category of financial operations.
The state DECA competition was in itself memorable: a three-day event at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center in early March, with some 3,300 participants.
The students agreed that the DECA experience has engendered several transcendent life lessons.
“Organization is the biggest thing, especially when you get to the states. We spent our entire February break making a 50-page manual,” Maya Singh testified. “It made me much more confident and improved studying skills.”
“It taught me to organize,” Tiwari agreed, and “it helped build confidence. I was talking to people actually working in the field. Studying really helps make you build interpersonal skills, speaking, developing winning strategies, retention of a lot of information.
“I’ve always been shy, but I also want to go into medicine,” she continued, explaining that the DECA involvement not only has helped her with personal interaction but also with the business basics needed to launch a medical practice.
Added Shaikh, “You can apply DECA into many areas of your life. It’s an eye-opening experience in what the real world is like.”
“The biggest thing is it’s so empowering to interact with professionals in your field, and with other students who have the same passion,” commented Diya. “You connect instantly because you have this thing in common: at the end of the day, there’s business in everything.”
Her sister reflected, “DECA has helped me realize I am good at problem-solving and I am good a persuading people. By studying hospitality and tourism, I was able to appreciate relationship-building, which I can use with people in my future.” Roza concurred, saying, “Problem-solving skill is one of the biggest things we developed.”
Rayna added, “Doing this made me realize it could become a real thing.”
“You are competing against the best of the best. It is a very proud moment,” said Flora. “I’m so incredibly proud of them.”
The BHS delegation brought home one other important message from the national conference: the ideological and cultural divide that commentators insist is afflicting the country is not apparent among teenagers, at least not those at the spacious Orlando convention center.
“Bianca and I got lost,” Shaikh related, laughing. “We met kids from Arkansas and they tried to help us. And we really liked the kids from Texas. And there were amazing kids from Minnesota.”
One vehicle DECA uses to promote student interaction is the trading of customized state pins. “We really got into it,” Shaikh laughed. “Pin-trading promotes networking and was a ticket to start talking.” That was part of the conference’s “fun side,” Shaikh said, which also included a takeover by the entire convention body of Universal Studios.
The Bedford winners are underclasswomen, and they’re looking forward to the 2024 nationals in Anaheim, CA, for five days at the end of April.