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“You Can Go After That Dream”: Adult Students Inspire Professionals at JFF Pathways Conference

Community college pathway students Rhyan Burt-Gautreaux, Natalie Woodhouse, and Leah Cagle

Community college career pathway students Rhyan Burt-Gautreaux, Natalie Woodhouse, and Leah Cagle

Jobs for the Future brought together education and workforce innovators and decision makers from across the country to share strategies for propelling underprepared youth and adults to college and career success at JFF’s Bridging the Gap conference April 7-9, 2015, in New Orleans.

For two days, we heard from community college leaders, workforce development professionals, business owners, policymakers, and government officials, yet some of the most memorable moments came when three former dropouts took the stage. 

The teenager, the single mom, and the grandmother were all nervous in the spotlight. But each inspired the 400-person crowd during an hour-long Q & A, explaining how they are thriving in career pathways designed to help them quickly finish high school, earn a college credential, and find good jobs.

Rhyan Burt-Gautreaux, 19, and Natalie Woodhouse, a 34-year-old single mother, study information technology in the Accelerated Career Education program at Delgado Community College in New Orleans. The ACE co-enrollment model teaches basic academic skills aligned with college-level technical classes. Success coaches keep them on track. Rhyan also gains valuable job experience in a paid internship through Tulane University’s “Earn and Learn” program, where he works half-time in technology services. Both intend to pursue IT careers.

Leah Cagle, 48, a stay-at-home mother of six (and grandmother of five), attends Pearl River Community College over the state line in Mississippi, where she is enrolled in a health trades career pathway. Leah already earned an industry certificate as a Certified Nursing Assistant and is working toward a GED while taking professional development and computer classes. Next step? Becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse.

Highlights of our conversation follow:

Each of you had some difficult educational experiences in high school. What’s different about these programs?

Natalie: The support network that you have. The success coach has been really instrumental in keeping me focused and motivated…. And the resources they give you help prepare you for academic success in general, not just one program.

Leah: It’s so encouraging to be able to be dual enrolled [in basic skills and college classes]. It inspires you. You don’t feel like a failure anymore....I need that positive reinforcement. [They tell me] you’re not just a mom, you’re not just a grandmother, you’re an individual and there are no boundaries here. You can learn…. And you feel like you can go after that dream that you thought would never happen.

Rhyan: Twice a week, we meet with all of the Earn and Learn interns for a professional development class. For me, that’s a big thing I’ve  been working on—interviewing [for jobs] and talking to people. Before I started meeting with [the success coaches], there is no way I would be up on this stage. I would have come in, taken one look at the room and how many people were in here, and I would have left. I wouldn’t have even said anything. I just would have turned and left.

How do you balance school with having children or an internship?

Leah: Somedays I don’t know how I do it. My husband works in Malaysia, so there’s no help. But I manage. No one can ever put a dollar sign on what education can do for your self-esteem. But it has done so much for me…. And I want to show my kids that education is never ending.

If you could give any advice to other students considering these programs, what would it be?

Natalie: To join it and not to give up, because it’s really hard in the beginning…adjusting to going back to school. You have to stick with it. 

What advice do you have for all of the program developers in this room who want to know what more they can to do help support students like yourselves?

Rhyan: Follow the example of ACE and Earn and Learn. Being dual enrolled in high school and college classes is a big deal, because it keeps me from being bored, which was a big problem for me in high school…. And the paid internships that are in the same field as what we’re trying to study and that work with the hours of your classes is definitely very helpful, because then you don’t have to go try to find a job and make that work around your classes.

Jobs for the Future provides technical assistance to Delgado, Pearl River, and seven other colleges in the Gulf Coast IT Consortium. Funding comes from the U.S. Department of Labor through TAACCCT grants.

Gloria Mwase directs JFF’s engagement in this initiative. Her work focuses on helping low-skilled adults advance to family-supporting careers, while enabling employers to strengthen their workforce.