Finding Ways to Engage Young People

Diane Garcia will tell you that she didn’t enter the General Business program at Western New England University with the intention of pursuing a career in the nonprofit realm. By her junior year, when people said the word ‘boardroom,’ she was thinking about Corporate America, multi-national corporations, and money.
By the time she graduated in the spring of 2009, however, those words meant something else altogether — the word ‘community.’ That’s because she’d not only been in a boardroom, but had a seat in one — serving the YMCA of Greater Springfield. Indeed, Garcia was a participant in the pilot program that became the school’s nonprofit board internship initiative (see story, page 24).
Inspired by her tenure at the Y, she accepted an Americorps Vista position in the National Development Office of Jumpstart in Boston upon graduation, and today works for a search firm that specializes in finding executives for nonprofits. Her story speaks to the success of WNEU’s program in accomplishing its broad mission of benefiting both students and area nonprofits by injecting youth onto those agencies’ boards. But it also speaks volumes about the ongoing need to engage more young people in this community, its businesses, and institutions.
More evidence is provided by the story on page 50, which relates the work done by Smith College student Annie Waters to help piece together a strategy to utilize the arts to bring more vibrancy to Springfield’s downtown.
As these programs clearly show, everyone wins in these situations, and especially the region, even if those young people don’t stay in the 413 area code.
Backing up a bit, the WNEU initiative was started with the idea that by placing top students on nonprofit boards and giving them full voting privileges, the students would gain experience, confidence, and a front-row seat with which to view the important work these agencies do in the community — something they couldn’t accomplish in the classroom.
Students have had the opportunity to help plan and execute such events as the YMCA’s annual fundraising breakfast, the Springfield Boys & Girls Club’s Festival of Trees, and the Hometown Heroes breakfast staged by the Pioneer Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross. And while doing so, they’ve gained an appreciation not simply for the work these agencies do, but how much support they need to keep on fulfilling their missions. And, by sitting on the boards and taking part in key votes, they can see first hand the importance of leadership and involvement in quality of life.
Meanwhile, the nonprofits have received an infusion of youth, a different perspective on the issues to come before the board, and probably an experienced voice when it comes to the matter of fully utilizing technology and social media to inform and educate.
In short, what was a theory three years ago is no longer a theory; it’s fact. And along the way, this program has provided more evidence that when we engage young people from our colleges and universities in the community, good things result, and for all the parties involved.
Moving forward, this region needs more programs like this, initiatives that not only offer real-world experiences, as people like to call them, but thrust students into the community, and into leadership roles as well. Placing a 21-year-old on a board with full voting privileges is an extreme, but there are myriad other ways in which area schools can put the talent in area classrooms to work in area businesses, nonprofits, city halls, and town halls.
On the flip side, too many businesses look upon internships and co-ops as time-consuming endeavors that are more trouble than they’re worth. This thinking is shortsighted and a hindrance to the long-term vibrancy of the region.
As Diane Garcia’s story and others like it show, the word ‘classroom’ has many definitions, and most of them don’t involve four walls and a blackboard. We need to create more ways to expand that definition further, and strengthen our region in the process.
All it takes is a little imagination.

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