It might have been spring break for Denver-area schools, but the NCAA and Notre Dame women’s basketball team recently helped a group of middle school students receive a once-in-a-lifetime education during the NCAA Junior Journalism Workshop held at the 2012 Women’s Final Four.

Twenty-eight seventh- and eighth-grade girls attended a Notre Dame press conference, open locker room access period and open practice at the Pepsi Center. Participants interviewed the Fighting Irish student-athletes about the importance of academics and time management, engaging in community service, being a positive role model and developing and maintaining a healthy self-image. After receiving instruction from local teachers and professionals, the young women wrote about what they learned from the experience.

“It's always inspiring to our players and staff to be able to see such bright and gifted young people exploring the possibilities of a career in journalism, while also getting a chance to meet and engage with student-athletes like our Notre Dame women's basketball players who have been in their shoes and are taking that next step in following their dreams,” said Chris Masters, associate athletic media relations director at Notre Dame. “I hope it was as much fun for this year's workshop participants as it was for all of us.”

This was the fifth year of the NCAA Junior Journalism program and each session has been a resounding success, said Tina Krah, director of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship.

“We are delighted to offer this opportunity each year to the young women from our NCAA Women’s Final Four host city and appreciate the chance to contribute in some small way to the education of the Junior Journalism Workshop participants,” Krah said. “Our women’s basketball student-athletes really enjoy interacting with the young women.”

Appreciative of her inclusion in the program was Melissa Larson, a digital media, multimedia and electronic publications teacher at Mesa Middle School, a public school in the southern suburb of Castle Rock. Nine of her students attended the NCAA Junior Journalism Workshop, which she described as “educational, inspirational and even life-changing.”

“It was an amazing opportunity for my students to learn about sports journalism,” said Larson, who also served as a group leader for the workshop. “They learned so much, and were so inspired by the Notre Dame players. They absolutely loved taking part in the press conference and watching the practice session. Each of my students told me that this event taught them so much, and gave them new role models to watch and look up to.”

Attendees also learned the ins and outs of the sports communication field from professionals working at the Women’s Final Four. Delivering a keynote address was USA Today sportswriter and Denver native Vicki Michaelis. Panelists included ESPN and Dial Global Sports broadcaster Krista Blunk, ESPN publicist Rachel Margolis and veteran sportswriters Wendy Parker (Basketball Times) and Michelle Smith (ESPNW).

In addition to the Mesa group, students from Alexander Dawson School, Bill Roberts School, Drake Middle School, Hamilton Middle School, Ken Caryl Middle School and Sierra Middle School participated in the workshop. The experience included a trip to Tourney Town at the Colorado Convention Center, where they wrote their stories and taped mock broadcast segments.

“The girls were given a rare gift to experience, first-hand, the fast-paced world of sports media,” said group leader Nancy Nyhus, a theater teacher and yearbook/journalism advisor at Hamilton Middle School in Denver. “What an amazing opportunity to be able to speak personally with a group of talented, focused role models for young women. My students will talk about this day for years.”