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Why Seeking Purpose Matters for Opportunity Youth

I recently read an article in The New York Times by Angela Duckworth entitled Graduating and Looking for Your Passion: Just Be Patient, in which she gives advice to new college graduates. For those who are not familiar with Duckworth’s work, she is an eminent psychologist who has helped to popularize the notion of “grit.” So, not surprisingly, she applies the same concept to the pursuit of a successful career; what’s key in her view is to foster and not to follow one’s passion, keeping in mind that it takes time; it also takes trial and error.

This got me thinking about whether or not this advice applies to all students or just to a segment of students. Take the estimated 5.5 million young people in the United States who are disconnected from school and/or work and are referred to as opportunity youth. The majority of these young people are African American or Hispanic, and their path to college and career success is strewn with barriers including a lack of academic preparation and the social emotional support needed to make it in postsecondary education, and a lack of access to the kinds of social networks that usually make it possible for wealthier students to land a first job.

Hence, this question: Is Duckworth’s three-pronged approach – move toward what interests you, seek purpose, finish strong – applicable to opportunity youth, too? More broadly can opportunity youth afford this kind of introspection when they face immediate needs, e.g. to put food on the table and pay rent at the end of the month? Can career choice for them be part of a larger purpose-seeking journey in life?

The answer is an emphatic yes! Let’s review Ms. Duckworth’s approach one prong at a time and consider how it applies to opportunity youth:

"Move toward what interests you"

Opportunity youth are not usually exposed to the wide range of emerging industries and jobs, especially those rapidly changing due to technology (which, generally speaking, include most of the high-wage/high-demand jobs today). Therefore, helping opportunity youth move toward what interests them requires exposing them to careers using online tools, job shadowing, internship, and mentoring. It also requires teaching them the skills to understand labor market trends and how to apply those trends to making solid choices in their postsecondary programs (including college and training programs, and expanding their social networks). Jobs for the Future has worked in partnership with YouthBuild USA to incorporate all of these skills into an online career exploration platform, MyBestBets. MyBestBets puts young people in charge of an intentional, information-rich career exploration process ultimately to identify their “best bet” program of study. It is being used by young people in communities across the country with the support of caring, trained adults.

"Seek purpose"

Like many in their age group, opportunity youth want to be agents of change for their communities and to help solve society’s most intractable problems. In fact, schools and programs that serve opportunity youth well use community service as an engagement strategy to increase their motivation to do better, improve retention, and help young people transform their own lives. YouthBuild USA and The Corps Network, for example, are well known national models that have community service as a core program component.

Furthermore, engaging in purpose seeking can also be practical; “learn and earn” strategies are critical to enabling opportunity youth to have a way to pay for their most pressing needs. Opportunity youth need a way to work and earn money, even as they pursue a “best bet” education or training program to prepare for a meaningful career. The New Orleans site of Opportunity Works, a JFF/Aspen Social Innovation Fund initiative, is implementing an Earn and Learn Career Pathways Program as a postsecondary bridging strategy designed to help young people gain work experience as they prepare for high-wage careers in the New Orleans area.

"Finish strong"

Helping opportunity youth finish strong requires sticking with them after they get a job to provide mentoring and social emotional supports needed to thrive in the workplace especially during the first few weeks/months on the job. Year Up’s alumni network is a good example of this strategy. All graduates of Year Up join the alumni network that offers opportunities to connect with peers and former graduates in person or online and receive targeted support. Finally, helping opportunity youth finish strong requires programs that serve them to work with employers to identify the most critical workplace success skills as well as technical skills that will position opportunity youth for advancement. The ultimate goal is to implement programming that teaches those skills even before opportunity youth are placed in jobs.

There is no doubt that “move toward what interests you, seek purpose, and finish strong” can be a working mantra for all of America’s youth including opportunity youth. America has a tremendous asset in opportunity youth to help propel it forward in the 21st century. We just need to prepare them for the challenge.

Clare Bertrand contributed to this blog.

For more on opportunity youth and program design strategies, visit Back on Track Designs.