Ashley Conaway is sixteen, but already she's an accomplished baton twirler, an upcoming high school senior with an interest in radiology, and earlier she stood on a stage in the middle of Allen Street about to perform as a participant in the Centre County "Outstanding Young Women" program.
Her parents, Heather and Michael Conaway, are from Port Matilda, and said thus far they're impressed with the program and proud of their daughter.
"We think it's awesome," Heather said. "It's a great opportunity for [Ashley] to not only possibly get some scholarships that would greatly help her in school, but it's an opportunity for her to learn some wonderful social skills, get out and perform, and just learn a lot."
The family actually has past experience with the program as Ashley's cousin, Tara Bokulich (formerly Parsons) participated 17 years ago. Bokulich is now on the program's board.
Soon, Ashley will be applying to the radiology program at Bloomsburg University. As a student whose current favorite subjects are science and English, she said she hopes to major in radiology because it would allow her to help people.
"I think this is a really amazing experience," Conaway said of participating in the program. "I think it'll really help my future. I'm just really, really excited."
In addition to the experience, Conaway said she's enjoying the chance to get to know people outside of her own high school, Bald Eagle Area High School.
"I don't know many people from different school districts," Conaway said. "I think it's pretty cool that I get to hang out with them and I'll get to know them better."
Linn Ripka, the program director for the Centre County OYW program, said the opportunity to meet girls from other places can have a long lasting impact even after the program ends.
"They create bonds and actually a lot of them end up in college together, they end up in [each other's] weddings," Ripka said. "They're just part of each other's lives."
The Arts Fest program included two rounds of talent demonstrations from four girls.
Penns Valley student Emma Heckman performed on the French Horn and other Penns Valley student Ashley Griffith did a mallet-percussion rendition of "Flight of the Bumblebees." State College Area High School's Nicole Pandolfi performed a dance interpretation of "All That Jazz" from the musical Chicago.
In order to begin the program, the girls have to go through an application process at the beginning of their junior year. The process includes paperwork, submitting a high school transcript and typically going through an interview and performance demonstration.
Despite application process, Heather said that the organizers and directors were very helpful.
"The people who run the program have made it so easy," Heather said. "They're so nice. It's been a great experience so far, and we haven't even gotten to the night yet, so we're excited."
Although there will be stops at the People's Choice Festival and at the Grange Fair, the program's final performance will appropriately end at Bellefonte Area High School on Sept. 16.
Ripka said she and the parents notice a transformation in the girls. For her, that's the best part.
"My favorite is when you have someone that may not be so sure of themselves, and by the end of it, it's like they're a different person almost, like they've grown," Ripka said. "You can see the confidence in them."
At the final performance, Ripka said parents will come up to her and go "Oh my gosh, how is that even my daughter?" because the girls are so much more confident.
Ripka said empowerment is the real goal.
"It is a scholarship program," Ripka said, "so it helps them with their self esteem, interview skills for when they're going to college, and even for job interviews. We teach them all kinds of different skills."
Though the Arts Fest performance isn't one that's being judged, the girls will receive $200 in scholarship money. This also allows for them to become more comfortable competing while they practice the creative and performing arts portion of the competition.
"It's a way for the girls to hep get those nervousness jitters out, be in front of an audience and to practice their performances," Ripka said.
The girls are being judged on different aspects including creativity, interview, aerobics and fitness, scholarship and achievement, presence and posture, and these aspects make up different portions of their overall score. According to the Centre County OYW program website, the Centre County program is one of the top programs in Pennsylvania and has helped distribute more than 200,000 dollars to over a thousand women since 1965.
In addition, the OYW program can also help students professionally and academically. Ripka also stressed that the program is not a pageant.
"Outstanding Young Women is well known throughout all of the states," Ripka said. "If you have that on your resume [interviewers will] go, "Oh, you're in that program.' We highly recommend it, we're highly well known, and so it opens doors for the girls in different places."