Highland Park's Julia Kerpel off to Maccabiah games -- it's just one of many accomplishments
Julia Kerpel saw the need to embrace a leadership position within the Highland Park High School Marching Giants marching band. So she became its drum major.
"Usually there's three, but this year it's just me," she said.
That sounds about right.
The rising, enterprising Highland Park senior can do the work of three.
The flute section lead in several ensembles of high school band including the Honors Wind Symphony. She's been a ballet dancer since she was 2 and now is training at the Irina Makkai Classical Ballet and Dance School in Highland Park.
A straight-A student, she tutors her peers in physics and mathematics, and as a member of Rotary Interact tutors elementary-level students, among other community service projects.
Kerpel became a certified Zumba instructor -- one of the youngest in the country -- in July 2019; when COVID-19 locked down day care centers, she combined exercise and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) crafts for children at JuliaZumba.org, and earned a Community Hero Award for service from the City of Highland Park.
STEM is one of Kerpel's main pursuits. She's an ambassador coordinator for Greenlight for Girls, an international effort based in Belgium dedicated to involving girls in STEM topics. She receives a monthly salary as an ambassador.
"Most people's first jobs are pizza delivery, babysitting, mowing lawns. I, on the other hand, work for an international organization," said Kerpel, currently finalizing her choices for college, where she hopes structural engineering studies will lead to a job at a downtown firm.
"The more I learn about women in STEM, it's that my situation is perhaps not the norm," she said. "Sometimes when I interview these ambassadors, I learn they are the only girl in their science class, or their village doesn't teach girls about science. And that makes me upset. I have to do something; I can't just sit and be upset."
And thus she also acts globally and locally, helping to bring STEM curriculum and ideas to girls with an emphasis on a diverse audience.
This spring Kerpel met with municipal leaders to present a "Day of AI" on May 13 that resulted in creating STEM events in Township High School District 113's Deerfield and Highland Park high schools, and North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park. Her work encompassed programs at the Highland Park Public Library and the Highland Park Park District.
"It was really all of government coming together under Julia's leadership to amplify information about AI (artificial intelligence) and opportunities to learn and get involved in science, technology, engineering and math," said Highland Park City Manager Ghida Neukirch.
"She's a very bright young woman, and I feel comfortable that our future is very sound under leaders like her."
Finally -- well, not really since there's other things like Giants Math Team qualifications and Society of Women Engineer memberships we could talk about -- Kerpel is a third-generation karate black belt. On July 4 she leaves for the 2022 International Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Part of the nine-member USA Junior Karate Delegation, she'll compete in kata (choreographed movement), and kumite (combat) in the under-18 female heavyweight division, in Haifa, Israel, where the martial arts competitions take place. The leader of the USA Junior Karate Delegation is Dr. Darren Brenner of North Shore Dojo in Glenview, where Kerpel trains under Jeffrey Kohn.
"I'm counting down the days," she said. "I'm dreading packing, but I'm so excited."
Kerpel's dance background is a boon for karate. Ballet has strengthened her legs, honed her balance, and increased her flexibility and her awareness of where her body is in space.
"With kumite, which is fighting, it's so different from everything else I do. I love it. Kata's planned, and a lot of my activities, from ballet to marching band, are planned, choreographed," she said.
At first Kerpel was motivated to gain her black belt to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Melissa, who herself followed her mother, Inez. ("She says that she only uses her karate for good," Julia said of her grandmother's skills.)
As her enjoyment increased, Julia's emphasis shifted from simply matching Melissa's black belt to improving her practice and serving as motivation for younger students in the dojo. Kerpel earned her black belt in November 2020, and earned a sensei, or instructor, degree, in June 2021. Her brother, Andrew, a sophomore at Tufts University in Massachusetts, got his black belt the same day as Julia.
In 2021, Julia Kerpel earned a bronze medal in kumite in the 17 advanced bracket at the USA National Karate Federation National Championships in Schaumburg. Accomplishments like that earned her entry into the USA Delegation.
"She's very hardworking, very intelligent. You can give her a strategy and a tactic, and she knows exactly how to implement the things we're telling her," Kohn said.
"I think she has a great chance to bring home a medal for our country. She's been working really hard," he said.
Among all her responsibilities, accomplishments, activities and leadership roles, there's another -- cheerleader.
But not in the most traditional sense.
"As a young woman, I want to be able to inspire young girls to say, 'Hey, I can do that because Julia's doing it,'" Kerpel said.
"I want to be a voice of support and I want to be a cheerleader for anyone I can be."