'You can make it'

'You can make it'

My daughter, who once had dreams of becoming a ballerina-princess/machine-maker, has a new career list.

After taking a “Career Cruising” survey at school, she was given 10 suggested occupations. They ranged from multimedia developer and website designer to elementary school teacher and corporate trainer.

Corporate trainer? And no science on the list?

I’ve always thought her curiosity and attention to detail would serve her well as a scientist. Plus I’m a big fan of the woman-in-STEM thing.

Then again, it’s her list (and life), not mine, and I decided it made some sense. She enjoys art and photography, she’s good with technology, she likes kids and LOVES giving directions.

I learned that she had taken the survey in preparation for a career day sponsored by the Education for Employment System based at Parkland College, a state-funded cooperative of area school districts that oversees career and technical education programs.Blog Photo

On six days throughout January, busloads of eighth-graders arrive at the I Hotel to hear people with all kinds of jobs — from video game designers and engineers to plumbers, firefighters and veterinarians — talk about what they do and how they got there.

The idea isn’t necessarily to get the students to decide on an occupation but get them thinking about it — and the life choices they can make now to improve their chances of success.

“It’s more about making it a piece of the puzzle,” said system Director Nick Elder. “What we’re just trying to do is show them the options that are out there and educate them about some of those soft skills that are going to help them keep a job, no matter what they end up deciding.”

That includes the four “gets,” outlined in the opening talk by former Jefferson Middle School counselor Topper Steinman.

— Get there on time, whether it’s class or work.

— Get after your work with quality.

— Get along. "That’s the No. 1 reason why people don’t keep jobs: They don’t know how to get along,” Steinman said at Thursday’s session with Urbana Middle School’s eighth-graders.

— Get creative and resilient, because life is going to throw you a lot of curveballs.

That was the theme of Thursday’s closing speaker, Urbana Fire Marshal Phillip Edwards, better known as “Fireman Phil.” He grew up in “the hood” in Alton, one of 14 kids born to a single mom. His biological father had 17 more children.

There was no money, sometimes not enough food and he had three pairs of pants to his name. He was teased and bullied, and said it affected his school work, his self-esteem and his behavior. He graduated with a 1.69 GPA, went into the Air Force for seven years and received a dishonorable discharge because of his poor work habits, he said.

But Edwards eventually turned his life around, became a firefighter and was promoted to fire marshal in 2006.

He shared his story to let students in similar circumstances know that there are people they can turn to for help, and that “where you are does not have to dictate where you go. The only thing that does is your mindset.”Blog Photo

“I needed help, but I didn’t know how to ask for it,” he said. This conference, he said, is “where you find out, ‘I don’t have to be here by myself.’ You can make it.”

His words affected the students, including Tiana Easley, who said she’s had some struggles in her own life.

“I want to be a pediatrician. I love kids and I like helping people,” she said.

The students were fairly engaged throughout the day and asked good questions. Some were practical (How much do you make? Do you have to work holidays?) and some bigger-picture.

A big one: When you were our age, did you think you’d have the job you have now?

The answer for most speakers? No.

Urbana Police Officer Preston James originally wanted to be a physical therapist. University of Illinois Senior Associate Athletic director Maria Woods planned to be a dentist but wound up an athletic trainer-turned-administrator.

“My senior year in college I was three classes away from graduating with a chemistry major and I decided, ‘I don’t want to do this right now,’” she said.

Fireman Phil asked perhaps the most important question: Would you rather have a job you love and make $50,000 a year, or a job you hate for $100,000?

No doubt about it, the presenters said. Take the job you love.

“That’s what’s going to get you up in the morning. That’s what’s going to get you through the tough times,” Urbana Firefighter Rhonda Foster said.

Presenter Carl Catedral, a website developer and graphic designer, said he always loved music and videos as a child but started pursuing more “practical” options as he grew older. Over the last few years, he gravitated back to his first choice.

No matter what your career is, he told the students, find out what is important to you. “Nurture your passions.”

Eighth-grader Page Mintz, who hopes to be a music producer someday, said she appreciated hearing from people involved in music and technology who love their work. “It gives me hope,” she said.

“It was really interesting to hear about the path they took to find their jobs,” added eighth-grader Elise Johnson.

With a son headed off to college in a little over a year, we’ve been talking a lot lately about career choices. He’s not set on anything yet, and like many parents, we’re walking that tightrope between guiding and not interfering — too much.

After last week, I’ve relaxed a little bit. I know whatever my kids may think now could change completely in a few years. I certainly didn’t know what I wanted to do at their age.

So maybe I will have a daughter who turns out to be an artist. Who makes machines on the side. Or something completely different.

I just have to remember it’s a journey — and try to enjoy the ride.


Julie Wurth writes about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.


Top: Javone Pruitt-Cavett, left, checks out classmate Darrion Stevens-Wilson's name tag, which also shows their 'Learn to Earn' schedule at a career fair for Urbana Middle School eighth-graders at the iHotel and Conference Center. They took part in the 26th annual 8th Grade Career Conference on Jan. 26, 2017. Heather Coit/The News-Gazette

Bottom: Urbana Middle School eighth-graders hear about careers in health care, business, communications and more at the career conference. Heather Coit/The News-Gazette

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