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Meaningful Work Supports Students to Achieve their Goals

JSI/WEI Photo Library Photo
The YAP group poses with their produce.
Who would have thought that a large plot of rocky, weedy land would represent anything other than a chore and a nightmare for a depressed and unemployed teenager? It turns out that for Elyse Hardy, the work she did on this plot of land, the opportunities it gave her to solve problems, join with others to meet real needs in the community, and develop relationships across diverse networks prepared her for the working world. Not only that, the work she did in the garden acted as an antidote to depression.

With the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) signed into law, and given its focus on aligning adult education with workforce readiness, her story holds important lessons.

In her poetically titled Change Agent article, “Growing Roots through My Hands,” Elyse Hardy describes her participation in The Tutorial Center’s Youth Agriculture Project (YAP), which included remediating soil, hauling rocks, establishing a pump system, planting, and harvesting, and finally selling the crop at the local Farmer’s Market. When this group of Vermont students had questions about farming practices, they connected with a network of organic farmers. When they had more produce than they could sell, they found worthy community groups to donate it to. And they started a side business – processing leftover tomatoes into salsa and making zucchini oatmeal bars.

JSI/WEI Photo Library Photo
For Renette Gonzalez, YAP inspired her to continue her education and become more involved in the community. Her story exemplifies the kind of success YAP is accustomed to. The vast majority of its students (89%) achieve an educational goal within a year of participating in YAP, and most (57%) obtain a job in a similar time frame. Although Renette had hated school and had dropped out, she found direction and purpose at YAP, completing her high school diploma, enrolling in Bridge to College, and becoming a mentor to other YAP participants. She now attends the Community College of Vermont.

Elyse and Renette tell their stories in the September 2014 issue of The Change Agent. We chose to highlight their work because they are real-world examples of how meaningful work and engagement with the community can provide the personal agency and sense of belonging to community that students often need to persist in school. (Look here for more information on key drivers of student persistence.)

Also, as federal support for adult education is increasingly tied to workforce training, it is good to remember what we learn from Renette and Elyse and the Tutorial Center of Vermont. It matters that the work is meaningful – that we can bring our whole selves into it and see that what we are doing has an impact on our community. As adult educators prepare students for the workforce, we need to take into account not just the needs of the labor market, but the needs of the workers as well. And if the workplace is not meeting the workers’ needs, then workers need to see themselves as sufficiently empowered to notice problems, build connections with others, and advocate for changes. Congratulations to The Tutorial Center of Vermont for creating a program that gives students meaningful work and teaches them how to be problem-solvers and agents of change in their workplaces and their communities.