Program lets students try out career experiences

CHAMPAIGN — Josh Bell, who will be a senior at Centennial High School next year, has wanted to be a police officer since he was 6 years old.

This summer, while working at the Champaign Police Department as a part of the Summer Youth Employment Program, he's learning more about what police officers actually do.

"It's not just traffic stops and tickets," he said. He's learned about the reports officers file and has been helping with the actual filing within the department. He's watched the SWAT team train — serving as a hostage — which has been his favorite experience so far.

He spent some time this month helping at the Advanced Youth Police Academy, where he's played the role of hostage or someone doing something wrong.

"It gives you opportunities to learn things you didn't know," Bell said of the Summer Youth Employment Program, and he's learned plenty even though he was already interested in police careers. His goal to become a police officer has been reinforced as a result of his summer job, he said.

The Summer Youth Employment Program is a partnership between the city of Champaign and the Champaign school district to place local students in summer jobs.

The program is in its third summer, and organizers this year worked specifically to try to match students in jobs that could relate to their future professional careers, said Suzanne Meislahn, the program's supervisor.

"Every year we're trying to improve a little bit on the program," she said, "and add a little bit more depth to it."

So she worked with Marc Changnon, the school district's coordinator of its Education to Careers and Professions Program, to help the program's 130 students use a tool called Career Cruising to identify the career areas they might be interested in.

Career Cruising helped them identify general "clusters" of professions and then what kind of education is necessary for specific jobs, Changnon said.

The students also used it to build resumes, he said, which helped them identify their own strong points and perhaps areas they needed to work on.

"The kids just had a ball with that," Changnon said. "I could just see their self-esteem just bubbling up."

Then, when the program had its annual job fair to match students with potential employers, the employers were labeled by the career cluster they belonged to, Meislahn said.

"From the career fair, we tried to match the kids with the employers they were interested in working for, and matching employers with kids interested in working with those careers," she said, with the goal of making a better match for both parties.

Organizers also tried to get students thinking about how their interests can relate to different jobs. For example, if a student enjoys working at a local nonprofit that serves kids, he or she might also be interested in working professionally in social services.

Or, if the student is working at a preschool this summer, that could be related to a career in early childhood education or other teaching.

Not every student was able to be matched perfectly, Meislahn said, and some career clusters aren't as well-represented by employers in the program as others. She said the program could especially use some more professional employers, such as attorneys, architects and the like.

However, the goal is to expose more students to careers they might be interested in the future.

"Employers are supposed to be more like mentors, as well," Meislahn said. Students are "supposed to be learning about the career while they're there."

Britany VonBusch, a student at the Novak Academy who will graduate next year, is working at The Salon House this summer, and hopes to become a cosmetologist.

She's learned a lot of practical things about the profession, including about blow drying, cutting, color and more.

"I just think it's a big thing, that I've learned more than I already knew," she said.

But she's also seeing firsthand how a salon grows, because The Salon House is fairly new.

She's wanted to be a cosmetologist since she was young, she said.

"I've been doing crazy things with my hair since I was a kid," she said.

Avona Greene, who will be a senior at Centennial next year, is interested in possibly attending medical school in the future, or perhaps becoming a nurse anesthesiologist.

She's working at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine as a part of the program this summer.

Her job has her disassembling, maintaining, repairing and reassembling a variety of microscopes, but she's also met people who have taken career paths she might be interested in. For example, she's met an anesthesiologist, as well as bioengineers who work there. She's consider majoring in bioengineering if she decides on medical school as her ultimate goal.

She's also been through career-related seminars that teach professional skills as a part of the program, she said.

"It's been very rewarding to me so far," Greene said. "I've learned a lot about microscopes and research."

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