How Individualized Pathway Career Exploration Can Change The Next Generation
By: Jennifer L.M. Gunn
In a dark first floor office in an old public school building in Manhattan, I sat next to a high school student who was disillusioned by school. Most kids came to me on their own, but many students were sent to me by teachers who noticed that a students' apathy reached a peak. In my tiny corner of my shared office, I helped teens begin their life-building journey — discovering passions, accessing the world of possibilities, and connecting them to the people within it.
Operating without a structured curriculum or established program, our approach was spontaneous and adaptive. Through a series of conversations, we embarked on a journey of discovery, peeling back the layers of a student's unique identity.
We brainstormed ways to align their passions and interests with available opportunities, carefully observing what resonated and what did not. Together, we navigated the process of exploration, ensuring that the path they chose felt authentic to their aspirations.
The College Question
My ambition to guide students down the right path, whether that included college or not, still seems more important than ever. According to the Education Data Initiative, 40% of undergraduate students leave college before graduation.
My aim was to guide students in discovering their unique talents while highlighting the diverse and promising paths available to each individual. College served as a fantastic choice for many students, but I recognized that the narrow emphasis on college preparation for all could be restrictive, detrimental, and woefully misaligned with aspirations of other students.
"That's a Job, Miss?"
On this particular day, I sat across from a student who had his hoodie up, backpack on, earbuds still playing music. He stared at me doubtfully, not ready to trust me. The institution of school was not a place of safety for him. It hasn't served him, but I hoped I could. Breaking the ice, I asked, “So, should we start making some dreams come true?”
“Oh, is that what you do?” he asked.
“No, that’s what you do. I just get you started.”
He wasn’t interested in going to college and I was probably the first school adult to not make him feel like that was an unworthy decision.
“I don’t want to work in an office. I want to build stuff,” he said. The way he said it in almost in a whisper, waiting for the admonishment, told me the system had hurt him. We got to talking about jobs in the building trades — everything from plumbers to welders.
“Hey, underwater welders make bank,” I said. “It’s one of the highest paid trades.”
“That’s a job, Miss?”
“Everything’s a job,” I said. “Everything you’re wearing right now has a hundred different jobs or more behind it. Jobs you’ve never even heard of.” More disbelief, but this time, the good kind.
He wanted to learn a trade and work outside. The more he spoke, the more animated he became. The backpack came off, the hood went down. He detailed his dreams at the edge of his seat, hyped about his future — talking about it in eager detail and openly for probably the first time ever.
“So, do you want to do an internship at a construction company?” I asked.
“I’m in. Let’s go. Put me down.” The next day, he showed up in my office, peeking his head around the door.
“Miss? Is there room in that internship for my friends?” Four new students filled my office, looking around as if this was the place where futures were made. Word spread. More dreams being hatched.
After that internship, the student did three more. He made connections, unlocked possibilities, and found himself. He was lucky to go to school with a principal who made career-centered learning a priority.
Individualized Pathway Exploration
All of this represents exploration, self-discovery and connection — the three keys to opening pathways for teens. Even if you don’t have such an office or program in your school, you can still help kids do these things.
After years of helping kids connect to post-secondary possibilities, I found that the best way is to equip teenagers with the tools for self-discovery, exploring their potential, and cultivating the next generation skills required for their chosen paths. This approach cracks open the life-building process for teens and disrupts the archaic and exclusionary approaches to "college and career" prep that leave so many behind. It fills the missing links and fosters holistic development of life-building skills.