Julia Kerpel saw the need to take on a leadership position within Highland Park High School’s Marching Giants marching band. So she became their drum major.
“It’s usually three, but this year it’s just me,” she said.
That sounds about right.
The aspiring, enterprising Highland Park senior can do the work of three.
The flute section has led several high school band ensembles, including the Honors Wind Symphony. She has been a ballet dancer since she was 2 and now trains at the Irina Makkai Classical Ballet and Dance School in Highland Park.
A straight-A student, she teaches physics and math to her classmates, and as a member of Rotary Interact, she teaches elementary school students among other community projects.
Kerpel became a certified Zumba instructor in July 2019 – one of the youngest in the country; As COVID-19 locked down daycare, she combined exercise and STEM (math, science, engineering, science) crafts for kids at JuliaZumba.org and received a Community Hero Award for her service from the City of Highland Park.
STEM is one of Kerpel’s main pursuits. She is Ambassador Coordinator for Greenlight for Girls, an international initiative based in Belgium dedicated to engaging girls in STEM issues. As an ambassador, she receives a monthly salary.
“Most people start out as a pizza delivery boy, babysitter or lawn mower. I, on the other hand, work for an international organization,” says Kerpel, who is currently finalizing her course of study where she hopes her civil engineering degree will lead to a job at a downtown company.
“The more I learn about women in STEM, the more maybe my situation isn’t the norm,” she said. “Sometimes when I interview these ambassadors, I find out that they are the only girl in their science class or that their village doesn’t teach girls anything about science. And that makes me angry. I have to do something; I can’t just sit around being upset.”
And so, too, does she act globally and locally, helping to bring STEM curricula and ideas to girls, with a focus on diverse audiences.
This spring, Kerpel met with community leaders to present a May 13 “Day of AI” dedicated to establishing STEM events at Deerfield and Highland Park High Schools in Township High School District 113 and North Shore School District 112 into Highland Park. Her work has included programs at the Highland Park Public Library and the Highland Park Park District.
“It was truly the entire government that came together under Julia’s leadership to expand information on AI (artificial intelligence) and learning opportunities and engage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Ghida Neukirch, manager of Highland Park City.
“She is a very bright young woman and I feel comfortable that our future is very healthy among leaders like her.”
Finally — well, not really, as there are other things like Giants Math Team qualifications and Society of Women Engineers memberships we could talk about — Kerpel is a third-generation karate black belt. On July 4, she will travel to Israel for the International Maccabiah Games 2022.
As part of the nine-strong USA Junior Karate delegation, she will compete in kata (choreographed movement) and kumite (fighting) in the U18 female heavyweight division in Haifa, Israel, where the martial arts competitions will be held. The head of the USA Junior Karate Delegation is Dr. Darren Brenner of the North Shore Dojo in Glenview, where Kerpel trains under Jeffrey Kohn.
“I’m counting the days,” she said. “I’m dreading packing but I’m so excited.”
Kerpel’s dancing background is a boon to karate. Ballet has strengthened her legs, sharpened her balance, and increased her flexibility and awareness of where her body is in space.
“Kumite, the fighting, is so different from anything else I do. I love it. Kata is planned, and a lot of my activities, from ballet to marching band, are planned and choreographed,” she said.
Initially, Kerpel was motivated to earn the black belt to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Melissa, who herself succeeded her mother Inez. (“She says she only uses her karate for good,” Julia said of her grandmother’s skills.)
As her joy increased, Julia’s focus shifted from simply matching Melissa’s black belt to improving her practice and motivating younger students in the dojo. Kerpel earned her black belt in November 2020 and a sensei or instructor degree in June 2021. Her brother Andrew, a sophomore at Tufts University in Massachusetts, received his black belt on the same day as Julia.
In 2021, Julia Kerpel won a bronze medal in kumite in the 17th advanced class at the USA National Karate Federation National Championships in Schaumburg. Performances like these earned her entry into the USA delegation.
“She is very hardworking, very intelligent. You can give her a strategy and a tactic and she knows exactly how to implement what we tell her,” said Kohn.
“I think she has a great chance to bring home a medal for our country. She worked really hard,” he said.
Among all her responsibilities, accomplishments, activities, and leadership roles, there is one more – 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 does,'” Kerpel said.
“I want to be a voice of support and I want to be a cheerleader to anyone I can be.”