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My SkillsUSA Journey: Growing the Skills and Confidence to Evolve into the Best Version of Me

SkillsUSA alum and former SkillsUSA New Hampshire director Hailey Brunk shares how the organization helped shape her personal and professional journey while proving itself to be a welcoming home for members of all backgrounds.
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Photo by Janet Cantore-Watson

Back in 2002-2003, I was a sophomore at Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa. Like many students, I was looking for an organization to call my own. My Graphic Arts and Printing teacher suggested I attend a Fall leadership workshop for SkillsUSA. I took his suggestion and attended my first SkillsUSA event and never looked back. Now, 22 years later, I could not be more thankful for that moment in time. SkillsUSA has been — and continues to be — a life-changing organization, and I would not be who I am without it. This is my story.

In over 22 years with SkillsUSA, it’s hard to highlight just a few of the most important moments of my time with the organization. Running for state office and serving as the SkillsUSA Pennsylvania reporter in 2003-2004 and state president for 2004-2005 were experiences of a lifetime. Being able to represent a large state association was exceptional and defined my high school experience. I remained active with SkillsUSA during college and then as an alumni member once I graduated college.

In 2014, I achieved what only 87 people have done in the history of SkillsUSA. I was awarded the SkillsUSA International Degree, SkillsUSA’s highest honor in what was then called the “Professional Development Program” (now the SkillsUSA Career Essentials Suite). The program required users to complete their education and work in their career and document many requirements. I could not have done it without the support of Jeri Widowson (the SkillsUSA Pennsylvania executive director at the time) and coordinator Kim Kucas. That year, at the Opening Session of the National Leadership & Skills Conference (NLSC), I received both my International Degree acknowledgement and the 2014 Outstanding Alumni of the Year award. Definitely a night to remember!

In 2016, I achieved my biggest dream — one I had for a long time — when I was named as executive director for SkillsUSA New Hampshire, my home state. Serving in this role was an amazing experience but also a lot of work — from running and managing fall and spring state conferences to leading the state association at the NLSC. It was a lot of responsibility, but it was also another life-changing experience. SkillsUSA New Hampshire membership increased, we had a large delegation at NLSC and we achieved a balanced state budget. Of course, administrative work aside, the biggest and most important accomplishment was more lives being changed by their membership in SkillsUSA. Because I was a former member who knew the benefit of joining, I was able to sell SkillsUSA with passion. I am still in contact with some of my former state officers and staff.

This quote from a former state officer means so much to me: “I met Hailey as a shy, anxious 17-year-old. I’d never been on a plane or given a speech. Through the course of two years as a state officer and another two with the SkillsUSA New Hampshire state staff, Hailey helped me understand what confidence and determination looks like. We went to the Washington Leadership Training Institute and Hailey walked me through my first time traveling. Since then, we’ve traveled a dozen times to various SkillsUSA events. I learned from her that even if you mess up giving a speech or you trip over your own words, you just keep going. That is what people will notice. Now I am 25 and have been out of SkillsUSA for four years, yet Hailey still continues to support me. I was honored to have her as my state director and now I have the honor of calling her my friend.”

Being part of hands-on career and technical education is a huge part of my life. After graduating high school, I attended the Pennsylvania College of Technology where I earned an associate degree in hospitality management and then a bachelor’s degree in business technology management. In 2023, I earned a master of business administration in event planning from Johnson and Wales University. Juggling school and work is hard, but it was worth all the hours invested.

I am now the Family and Consumer Science teacher at Manchester Central High School in Manchester, N.H., and the associate director of Camping Services for the Athol (Mass.) Area YMCA. I love these jobs because I get to change lives and help people achieve their dreams, just like my teachers and camp counselors did for me.

I’ve written about my education and career journey, but my personal life and its connection to this organization is also unique and so important to me. Growing up, I always knew that I was different and didn’t fit in with the normal crowd. As I got older, with the support of my inner circle of family and friends (a few of them in SkillsUSA), I affirmed myself to be transgender. Starting in December 2019, I would take the next year and half to find my true self and expand the circle of people who knew I was transgender. In August of 2021, at the annual State Directors Association Professional Development Conference, I came out to my SkillsUSA family. The amount of support and love that I felt from this group cannot be described. I will be honest: I was scared. To come out to SkillsUSA, the organization that shaped me and that I could not imagine being without, I was worried I would no longer be welcomed. To say that I was completely wrong is such a wonderful thing. Since coming out, I was invited to be a part of the SkillsUSA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force. I attended the 2022 NLSC and in 2023, I was selected as a volunteer in the NLSC office for the Business Partnership and Development team. I will be back in 2024. It’s a great feeling to know that SkillsUSA can continue to be a part of my life forever.

I appreciate that SkillsUSA truly is an accepting community that treats all members with respect  and those are not just words on paper but a true belief system of the organization. I am proud that that members of the LGBTQ+ community feel welcomed and safe, and I have confidence that won’t change. I thank SkillsUSA for taking the lead to be the welcoming and inclusive organization that it is.

For the near future, I don’t see my life changing very much — because it doesn’t need to. I am happy putting my culinary skills to use as a Foods and Baking high school teacher and I love being involved in the world of summer camps. I will complete my teaching certification next year and you will continue to find me volunteering at local, state or national events to support the next generation of skilled workers and give back to SkillsUSA since it changed my life.

The best part about SkillsUSA is your personal growth. In this organization, it’s okay to be starting on a journey — whether that is your career journey or your personal journey — and not know exactly where you are headed. If you are open to discovery, develop your skills and learn to speak with confidence, you can advocate for yourself and also help others who may be on your same path or a totally different path. I’ve met great people in SkillsUSA and have learned we don’t all have to be the same to feel a great sense of unity. Just be your true self and you’ll find the biggest group of supporters not only surrounding you but lifting you up to new heights you couldn’t even imagine.

Hailey Brunk is a SkillsUSA past state officer, past state director, alumni member and national conference volunteer.

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