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How to explain the youth development profession

By Jessica Pierson Russo

Group of youth running and playing outdoors
I’m not very fond of small talk. It’s not because I don’t like getting to know people; it’s just that it doesn’t always lend itself too well to being honest, and I’m the kind of person who, while maybe not 100% truthful, is at least honest about who I am. And there is no small talk question I hate more than, “So what do you do?” As a youth development professional, I am filled with a mild feeling of panic by this innocent question. Should I answer it honestly? Because if I do, I’ll be breaking the #1 rule of small talk: never get too long-winded or deep.

Why does telling people I am a youth development professional fill me with such dread? Because they generally have no idea what I’m talking about. If I tell them I do after school programming, they smile and nod but then think I’m just playing around with kids all day. They can kind of picture it, but they have no idea why I would do it. I should, after 17 years, have my elevator pitch ready to go. It’s just that this field of work is so dynamic and means so much to me, that I have trouble breaking it into easy, bite-sized pieces. But I’ll try, if not for my own sake, then for the sake of those of you reading this now. Here we go, and please, feel free to contribute to the discussion by making a comment.

How can I explain what it means to be a “youth development professional” to those who have no idea what I mean?

  1. I help kids discover and dig into topics they’re really interested in. 
  2. I work with kids in the out-of-school hours. About 5/6 (83%) of their waking hours are spent not in school, and these hours are great opportunities to make a positive impact.
  3. The main focus of my work is on positive youth development. Positive youth development is about seeing children as whole people and creating environments for their learning and growth to thrive.
  4. The out-of-school programming we create are nonformal learning environments—they’re structured, but the goal isn’t for them to get a grade. It’s for them to discover something about themselves and the world that inspires them.
  5. I love what I do because I know that it has a deep impact on young people seeing and carving out a bright future for themselves.

So, there you go. Brief, but meaningful enough not to break the rules of small talk. And, it may even spark some interest in real conversation. At least...I hope so. What do you think?

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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  1. I love how you worded this. Thank you for sharing and also for the great resources.
    Cassie Girling
    Extension Educator, Crow Wing County

  2. Great post, Jessica! I too struggle to explain my job. I study (but usually not through surveys) and teach people (but usually not students) who work with youth (but usually not in schools); it's complicated!


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