KEARNEY – They arrived at Friday evening’s event dressed in their best attire.

It was a requirement for this three-course dinner, a fancy, black tablecloth affair at The Archway in Kearney.

For many of the guests, this was their first time attending a formal banquet. And they had a lot to learn.

Which direction should I pass the salad dressing?

How do you twirl pasta?

Why are there so many utensils?

“Different forks are for different things, and you need a butter knife and a steak knife. I just didn’t know these things before,” said Kendle Rodriguez, a student at Sunrise Middle School.

Rodriguez is one of 80 local seventh graders participating in Skills for Success, a five-week program that teaches professional and personal etiquette to middle schoolers.

Launched in 1999, the program covers first impressions, social media and email etiquette, thank-you cards and RSVPs, professional and formal attire and table manners. Participants also pick up a few dance moves, including a waltz they learned from Kearney School of Dance and Gymnastics instructors Jessie Jewell and Jessie Dubas.

Carol Schwarz, an educator with Nebraska Extension in Buffalo County, presented Friday night’s lesson on dinner etiquette, and the other sessions are led by University of Nebraska at Kearney students from the Alpha Phi sorority and Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity who serve as mentors.

MacKenzie Doescher, an exercise science major and pre-physician assistant student from Fremont, said the program is a fun way to teach seventh graders important life skills.

“I wish I would have had a program like this when I was younger,” the UNK sophomore said. “We’re all going to get jobs someday, and these are things we need to know.”

About 15 to 20 sorority and fraternity members volunteer for the program each week, allowing them to connect with middle schoolers while sharing some useful tips. They even organized a full fashion show demonstrating what to wear, and what not to wear, for different occasions.

UNK senior Gabe Crocker, a pre-dental student from Kearney, has been involved with Skills for Success for three years, including the past two as a leader for Sigma Phi Epsilon.

“I just love it,” the chemistry major said. “I love everything about it. For me, it’s an opportunity to instill values and knowledge in these seventh graders. Even though they may not use it now, it will definitely be valuable later on.”

For Dori Moomey of Kearney, who has helped coordinate Skills for Success the past eight years, the UNK students are an irreplaceable asset.

“I couldn’t run the program without them, because they do so much,” Moomey said. “It’s an awesome partnership.”

Skills for Success will host its graduation ceremony this Friday in the Ponderosa Room at UNK’s Nebraskan Student Union, and there’s a seventh grader from Sunrise Middle School who can’t wait to showcase the knowledge she’s gained.

“In the future, if my boyfriend or husband doesn’t know how to tie a tie, I can help him with that,” Rodriguez said. “Or I can get a really good job because of the interview I gave. It’s good to learn these things.”