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Supporting aspirations and building pathways to future opportunities: Youth perspectives

By Jennifer Cable

Youth participants in the Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) project
Youth programs are an effective way to support youths' aspirations and pathways to future opportunities in education and career. Aspirations are future-oriented and are “indicative of an individual or group’s commitments towards a particular trajectory or end point.” 

In one Minnesota 4-H program, implemented in partnership with the Moundsview School District Equity Team*, a group of nine youth engaged in a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) project using the YPAR Stepping Stones framework. The purpose of their project was to capture how the pandemic has changed the ways families and young people think about school and family-school-youth partnerships, and consider what new opportunities have been created for such partnerships. Campus visits were integrated into their project experience, providing intentional opportunities for the youth participants to meet current college students and faculty, share their plans for the future and explore the University campus on a deeper level.  

Three of the youth participants are represented in this blog to share their unique pathways. 

Programs on campus can support youths' unique paths

Early exposure to diverse learning opportunities support pathways for young people to think about their aspirations post-high-school as young people’s orientations towards the future can be shaped by key events in the present.

  • Ava believes any exposure kids can have to universities is great. She also recognizes how essential connections can be. “I only really grew into my shoes and realized how important connections were when I began getting into more community roles during the pandemic, like this one, and involved myself in my county. Without that experience, I would not be the person I am right now.” 
  • For Gutu, the U of M campus visits really solidified his desire to attend college after high school and created a sense of belonging for him in a higher education setting. Gutu recalls meeting a college student who talked about her experiences studying abroad, which he found really interesting and made him think, “Oh yeah, I really want to go here.”
  • Uniquely, Marcia shared that she felt encouraged by the campus visits, especially when the conversation normalized youth being “undecided” as they enter the college space.

Youth share their future plans and aspirations with others

Throughout the project experience, youth were provided with diverse opportunities to share their future plans with one another through one-to-one conversations with caring adult mentors, in interviews with their peers and through group reflection integrated into the experience. 

All three of these 11th grade 4-Hers have distinctive post high school plans, which beautifully demonstrates how everyone’s journey and future aspirations look different: 

  • Gutu’s interests span multiple disciplines, from social sciences to the study of human behavior, or maybe even business entrepreneurship. He hopes to attend a four year university in-state.
  • Marcia will be attending Minneapolis Community & Technical College (MCTC) with plans to transfer when the time is right. “In general, I had a really great experience at the U of M and I’d like to continue that.” 
  • For Ava, her desire to pursue higher education was really sparked during a 9th grade campus visit through her school’s Soror club. “For me, still, University is so abstract and there are so many different routes you can take and the process can be really scary and big, especially to underclassmen…I think getting 8th graders, 9th graders, 10th graders and even my grade into Universities to learn about opportunities is really important.” Ava plans on going into pre-med and would like to pursue a career as an obstetrician. 

Youth can learn transferable skills in youth programs

In reflecting on the project with Ava, Gutu and Marcia, we also discussed another important layer to this leadership experience, which was the development of transferable skills and learning how to articulate those skills to others. In youth programs, providing opportunities to problem-solve, working collaboratively in teams, encouraging peer mentorship, approaching learning using different methods and using reflection to prompt critical thinking can translate to different skill-sets learned and developed. 

  • Gutu shared that his ability to navigate conversations improved and he feels better equipped to recognize when situations become uncomfortable or when peers need a gentle nudge to speak their truth. “Being able to connect with younger peers and being more of a mentor for them that kind of builds your own confidence”. 
  • Marcia also felt growth in her confidence. It “allowed me the chance to feel like I can do leadership-related things and I know I can do it again.” Marcia now has plans to start a crafting afterschool program with the support of her principal. She hopes to bring together a group of people who enjoy the same things and can learn collaboratively. 
  • “I think a lot of skills like being responsible and learning how to speak better kind of go straight into your subconscious and just work with you as you learn and adapt. I think definitely [these skills would support me] as I go on to university,” Ava shared.

Youth workers play a critical role in building intentional program pathways for youth to develop and practice transferable skills and explore future aspirations. In what ways have you found success building pathways to future opportunities and aspirations alongside youth?

A special thank you to Marcia, Ava and Gutu for inspiring this post and sharing your insights.

-- Jennifer Cable, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

* This project is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development's Department of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota Extension's Center for Youth Development and Center for Family Development and Ramsey County 4-H.

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