Lifting the Lid: Social Justice in High School Career Exploration

By Suporn Chenhansa and Trisha Tran

“My grandfather told me a story about grasshoppers,” Alex (name changed) shared,  “If you put grasshoppers in a box,” he continued, “and leave the lid on long enough, they will learn to jump only as high as that lid, even if the lid is later removed.”

Alex is a low-income Latino residing in the San Francisco Bay Area (California) amid the Silicon Valley economic growth. Alex represents community college students from an underrepresented demographic group. In the story he told, the grasshoppers learn that they can only jump so high, and so will not even attempt to jump any higher even when the lid is removed.  This grasshoppers story demonstrates how important it is for educators to “lift the lid” for young individuals from at-risk backgrounds, especially before their perceived potential is limited by a self-defeating mindset.

Very few multidimensional programs exist that specifically target young at-risk students. The Ohlone College’s Tri-Cities One-Stop Career Program described in the following paragraphs is one such program. It is designed to help remove the lid of barriers to career potentials of young at-risk students such as Alex.

The Program

From students like Alex, the Ohlone College One-Stop Career Center has recognized the importance of connecting young individuals with opportunities. The students need to know their potential is not limited by obstacles; they can exceed whatever ceilings they had thought existed and have as much potential for success as their peers.  Working with local alternative high schools and occupational programs where many at-risk students are served, the One-Stop Career Center has intentionally partnered with other community and campus offices to build programs to empower students in multiple venues as they transition from high school to college and/or career.

The traditional path promoted in high school leads to a baccalaureate degree and involves focusing on the academic requirements.  These academic requirements may hold little meaning to students who are facing socio-economic barriers, family instability, and have no role models to help motivate and inspire them.  When asked, these students' stated goals are much more immediately practical:  they need to make money to help their families and to supplement their own needs, such as clothes, food, and other basic necessities.

To effectively help these students, the One-Stop Career Center designed programs to provide multiple opportunities for young adults to consider academic advancement.  Three main strategies shaped these opportunities:  1) develop students’ awareness that their goals can be reached and even exceeded through academic achievement, 2) build an image for students successfully visiting a college campus, and 3) inspire students through relationships with attentive and emphatic professionals.  These three strategies are realized through three programs namely, 1) the Workforce Readiness (WorkReady) Program at high school campuses, 2) specialized Ohlone Community College Open Houses, and 3) the Ohlone College Puente Mentorship program.  


The Workforce Readiness Program (WorkReady) is designed to meet students where they are and elevate their potentials by linking their perceived needs to academic advancement such as attending and completing college. WorkReady starts with a “lifestyle selection” activity and a “Draw My Life” exercise (Tran, 2015), allowing students to visually express where they have been, where they think they are, and where they envision themselves going.  This leads to a frank discussion which allows students to identify their goals.  In past sessions, most commonly, students expressed a strong desire to ‘make money’ now or very soon, either through part-time work while in school, full-time work if possible with schooling, and/or quitting school to focus on earning money. These goals are incorporated into the WorkReady curriculum while encouraging students to consider focusing on longer-term academic and professional careers.

To help students with job search, the WorkReady curriculum facilitates students’ development of their own unique professional narratives and build their professional brands through practice with resumes and mock interviews.  Alongside these, a lesson on funding for the future shows students the correlation between college degrees and monetary earning potentials. Through this exercise, students can see for themselves the value of education, and how education may be able to help them more than achieve their income goals, encouraging them to envision grander goals.

Open House Events

Beyond the WorkReady program, the One-Stop initiated regular Open House events at Ohlone College for local alternative high schools.  Through this program, students visited departments at the Ohlone Newark Center for Health Sciences and Technology, met a number of academic deans and administrators, interacted with current college students, learned about or completed a community college application, and shared a meal on college grounds.  Physically visiting a college campus even for a few hours can help these high school students envision themselves attending college in the future, even if completing high school credits is a struggle.

Through these events, over 350 students visited the college campus, many for the very first time. Participants reported having positive experiences. “I liked the tour around the campus because our (peer mentors) explained every detail about each of the classes and shared their experiences. The presentation was good. It helped probably most kids to go to college and not feel like you're not good enough for it,” a participant remarked.  Another student shared that the visit “taught me a lot about the school (and) it got me interested to go there.”

Mentorship Program

In addition to the two programs above, the One-Stop launched a Mentorship program which addresses students at a more individual level.  Mentorship has been shown to be a successful strategy in career exploration for young adults (Wagner, 2015). Students and mentors are matched according to several factors including academic and/or career interests.  During structured activities, mentors have opportunities to act as role models, and provide students with support and encouragement to continue pursuing academic and professional excellence.  Mentors are professionals from widely diverse fields, ranging from government/nonprofit to private healthcare to informational technology companies. Some of the comments show the positive impact of the program on the participants. One mentor commented on his experience, “It's always good to see a young man who has the resilience to navigate the obstacles and distractions of certain geographical locations… Not only did he learn from me, but I learned from him.”  Similarly, Alex recognized the importance of mentorship and appreciated learning from his mentor. “He helped me by introducing me to his networks … to help me with my career decisions.” Inspired by his mentor, Alex began to consider longer-term career plans.

The One-Stop expects to positively impact the students by encouraging at-risk students to plan beyond immediate needs for long-term gain. In the past two years, these programs have reached almost 400 underrepresented high school and college students, Alex included. Through these three programs, the Ohlone College Tri-Cities One-Stop Career Center intentionally provided multiple opportunities to young individuals to advance academically and professionally, while still acknowledging their current goals.   Implementing these type of program means counselors and educators are able to help ‘lift the lid’ of limitations for students, help students exceed their previously perceived barriers, and be empowered to reach higher levels of success.

References & Resources:
Hirsch, D. (2010). The high school to college transition: Minding the gap - New England Board of Higher Education. New England Journal of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.nebhe.org/thejournal/the-high-school-to-college-transition-minding-the-gap/

Research Relating to Making the Transition from High School to College and the Workforce

Tran, T. (2015, October). Draw my life: An exercise to help students connect with counselors and peers. Career Convergence. Retrieved from http://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/111667/_self/CC_layout_details/false


Transitioning Out of High School. http://www.isbe.net/spec-ed/pdfs/NHSC_TransitionsOutFactSheet.pdf

Wagner, S., & National Fund for Workforce Solutions. (2015). Promising practices in young adult employment: Hands-on multidisciplinary career exploration and mentorships. Jobs For The Future. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED560780.pdf

Why Go to College? https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/why-go-to-college.pdf

Trisha TranTrisha Nhu-y Tran, M.A., is a workforce development professional with the WIOA program in the Eastbay Area (CA) and currently a Career Advisor for the Tri-Cities One-Stop Career Center at Ohlone College District. She provides counseling services to help students and client to reach their true potentials. She can be reached at  trishatran@ohlone.edu or through http://www.linkedin.com/in/trishantran


Suporn ChenhansaSuporn Chenhansa is always learning. After graduate programs in Linguistics and in Engineering, she is continuing to explore, learn and grow. Currently working at the Tri-Cities One-Stop Career Center at Tri-Cities One-Stop Career Center at Ohlone College District, she thrives on exploring different and new educational venues, and on encouraging others to keep learning. She can be reached through sup4one@gmail.com or through http://www.linkedin.com/in/schenhansa


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Larry Robbin   on Tuesday 11/01/2016 at 07:36 PM

This is an excellent example of what it takes to help first generation college students succeed. It uses real experiences (college tours) instead of just information. It involves role models that are critical for first generation students to believe that they can succeed. This is such a better model than just recruiting first generation students and leaving them without the experience and support that they need.

Teresa Caruso   on Tuesday 11/15/2016 at 02:35 PM

I love the story of Alex and the reminder of how our students often put restrictions on themselves and how sometime we as adults do the same to ourselves and our children (not on purpose). Thankful for programs like these to help those who feel they have no other resources to achieve higher goals. Everyone, young and old needs a mentor. Great Article!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.