At careers event, KCK freshmen start thinking about the future

When 400 freshmen walked through the doors at Wyandotte High School on Friday, it looked much like the typical first-day-of-school dance — find your locker, meet your teacher, greet your friends.

And then they did something different.

Instead of simply talking in grandiose terms about careers, ambition and dreams, school administrators and PREP-KC pulled off a modern take on the typical career day with the help of about 100 professionals pulled from Kansas City’s biggest and smallest businesses.

It was like speed dating, but with business professionals offering a glimpse of the workplace.

Dubbed “career jumping,” the event allowed groups of three to four students to rotate every six minutes to listen to different professionals offer advice and describe their jobs.

They reminded students that ACT scores, math skills and playing well with others really do matter.

PREP-KC, a nonprofit organization working to enhance college and career readiness at urban schools in the Kansas City area, organized the event with help from school administrators.

Holding it on the first day of school was no coincidence.

Wyandotte principal Mary Stewart wanted her students to start thinking about their career from day one.

“It’s very important that they understand that high school is about their future. It’s not about the here and now. Our kids have to start to create that dream so they can take action on that dream,” Stewart said.

The fast-paced environment kept students engaged and even left many professionals time to take student questions. The small group setting practically forced reticent freshmen to make eye contact and ask questions of an FBI agent, journalists, a musician, computer engineers and many others.

PREP-KC and the school plan to follow up with other career events, including job shadowing and college campus visits.

The idea is to keep students focused on outcomes, said Susan Wally, president and CEO of PREP-KC.

“The challenges of finding a high-quality career in the 21st century requires a lot of support,” Wally said.

Many students seemed intrigued by the interaction.

Freshman Nadia Rodriguez already knew she wanted to be a nurse. But on Friday she heard that nursing jobs exist outside hospitals.

“People are nurses and they do other stuff,” the 14-year-old said.

A graphic designer explained how his organization makes cellphone applications. A Hallmark accountant and Wyandotte alum let those gathered at her table in on a secret:

“While you are here, take as many different types of classes as you possibly can. It will help you identify what you like and what you don’t,” said Jeainnie Brown. “When I was at Wyandotte I took an art class and found out I didn’t like art.”

Even the artists at Hallmark, she said, need support from math lovers like her.

The professionals also said an education and a friendly disposition can go a long way.

“You need to be able to work with people in teams,” J.C. Penney area supervisor Olin Shurn said. “Never stop learning. Get all the education you can.”

Wyandotte teacher Rosie Maloney looked around the room and was in awe at the opportunity placed before students. She knows many of her students wouldn’t get the chance to talk with this many professionals if not for the career event.

Not many adults, let alone students, get to ask probing career questions of executives from Black & Veatch, American Century, Honeywell, Garmin, HNTB and the other businesses represented.

Teachers can explain career paths, but it’s not the same as having a financial investor or lawyer explain their own story, Maloney said.

The whole event had Stewart smiling from ear to ear as she watched her newest class exit the school. They were off to catch a bus, hang out with friends and, she hopes, daydream about their future.