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Getting Youth Back on the College and Career Path

Young people from urban communities need help finding their career path.

There's plenty of talk about getting youth on a college or career-ready path. But how do we ensure that students who have gotten off track get the support they need to get back on course? Doing just that is the goal of the Pathfinder Fellowship, a just-launched joint effort of GOOD/Corps and The California Endowment.

I'm serving as the project coordinator for the Pathfinder Fellowship, which is, in simple terms, a paid internship. But simple is far from the reality of this on-the-job training program. Our 10 Fellows, who range in age from 18 to 20 and come from some of the most disenfranchised neighborhoods in Los Angeles, will be grouped in pairs and placed at local host organizations—places like TOMS, Team Rubicon, the Hammer Museum, Hint Mint, and GOOD. Over the next 12 weeks, they will learn, grow, interact, and work toward developing the knowledge, skills, and mindset they need to identify and pursue a career path.

Indeed, each fellow will be backed by a network of support in the form of mentors at the host organization, social workers, and the team of people at GOOD/Corps who all have a vested interest in seeing these youth flourish not just as members of the workplace, but also as individuals.

We're specifically focusing on youth who may have struggled to get out of high school, and have very limited options. A major goal is to propel, motivate, and springboard these ten young people into the next phase of life, thus increasing the chance that they will be contributors to their own success, assets to their communities, and contribute to the overall health of society.

The first time I worked with youth I was still in high school, and the experience resonated with me not because of the small paycheck, but because of the chance to mentor younger kids from the community. I was one of five students of color at my majority white prep school, and the admissions office "handpicked" all five of us to run an experimental summer camp with an emphasis on academics. I'd bussed tables the previous summer, so I was excited about a leadership position.

The majority of the camp's kids were in summer mode—extra studying in order to possibly be enrolled in a better school was clearly less desirous than the normal summer routine. Nevertheless, they had clearly all been given that pep talk about education that involves the words "Don't make me have to come down to that school." They understood they would be disappointing more than just themselves by not giving it their best.

This camp also represented a grand challenge to these youth: they could possibly earn enrollment in my prep school if they raised their academic scores in just one month. I knew that my school was content with the few brown faces it had, and this program was more for PR than actual courtship of a more diverse student body, but I went along with it because I figured I could help provide the most meaningful experience possible for the youth even if it never amounted to actual enrollment.

It would not be until years later and on another continent that I was able to realize how fulfilling the work with youth is. In Kenya—and later South Africa—I worked with children and youth thirsty for opportunity, knowledge, and skills. Children, teenagers, and young adults all have a sense of urgency about their immediate future, which makes them yearn for long-term success, and the training they need to achieve that success. The desire for viable options in higher education and adequate employment is pitted against scarcity in most parts of Africa. Unfortunately, those options are often just as intangible in the urban centers of the United States.

As I'm getting to know the Pathfinder Fellows—some come from foster care, are single moms, have been involved in the juvenile justice system, and have had family members deported—I am already seeing the same hunger for opportunity I saw in the developing world.

We chose these 10 Fellows through an arduous selection process, and then evaluated where their passions—for art, entrepreneurship, or an interest in service—would best fit. And although the Fellows have been matched up with host organizations that will train and foster their growth, the Pathfinder Fellowship does not stop there. Every Monday, the group will come together as a cohort and be exposed to a new career path in the form of tours, lectures, seminars, and roundtable discussions. They'll have access to our partnering local businesses and organizations, like Nestle, 826LA, The LA Dodgers, Pan American Bank, and Fox Studios.

On these Monday site visits, the Fellows will be encouraged to listen, learn, and interact with the purpose of envisioning a career in that specific line of work. The end goal of the Pathfinder Fellowship is helping as many young people as possible find their career path and supporting positive growth in our urban communities. I look forward to the stories of evolution and success that the Fellows will be sharing with the GOOD community—they need your engagement, ideas, and encouragement. As the old African proverb says, "It takes a village to raise a child."

Want to mentor a student from a low income community? Click here to say you'll do it.

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