Guest Post: Sara Wells, ACES Summer Bridge Program – reachHIRE

“I was hopeless coming into this program, but I learned all the options I have and it regained my hope” – MCPS High School Senior.

For a week in August, 2020 – isolation was replaced with hope for a group of high school seniors.  Along with a handful of my talented Universities at Shady Grove (USG) colleagues, I had the privilege of leading the first ever virtual summer bridge program for students in the Achieving Collegiate Excellence & Success (ACES) program.  For years – this signature summer programming has been delivered on the USG campus to local students who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education.  Transitioning to a virtual format was an exercise in creativity, critical thinking, and teamwork – ironically the exact career readiness skills that we seek to impart to students during our summer bridge program – which we call reachHIRE.  The results far exceeded my initial expectations.

Over 300 students participated in reachHIRE, rivaling the engagement level for our in-person program.  Every morning students received a link to an interactive, self-paced learning module on a topic such as Writing an Elevator Speech, Exploring Careers, and Building a Professional Reputation.  There was even a virtual scavenger hunt which highlighted the many benefits of pursuing a degree offered at USG (a student favorite!).  Students appreciated that they could complete these modules at their own pace, and they raved about the fun and “gamified” features such as videos, quizzes, and at-home science experiments. 

While these independent modules had a measurable impact on learning – they couldn’t replicate the peer social connection that so characterized our in-person reachHIRE event.  The USG team responsible for putting this event together sensed that students would be yearning for connection after months at home, so a daily live Zoom session was added.  Each live session had its own flavor.  On one day students practiced elevator speeches to the praise of peers – the chatbox was an explosion of caring and encouragement.  On another day, students were able to ask questions of ACES students currently enrolled in programs at USG.

My favorite live session was a culminating professional panel event which allowed students to demonstrate the career skills and increased confidence developed over the course of reachHIRE.  Over 25 regional employers and many staff from university partner programs at USG participated in industry panels, employers included: Allied Health, FDA, NIH, Westat, Shapiro & Duncan, NASA, Interfaith Works, Mid Atlantic Federal Credit Union, Children’s National Hospital, and the U.S. Public Health Service. Students asked thoughtful questions of regional industry leaders who matched with their career interests.  In a time when students have been prevented from participating in many formative career experience that characterize summer– we were able to deliver quality career experiential learning in a virtual format. 

I often find myself wondering how we will remember the challenging season of 2020 when we reflect back 10 years from now.  We will almost certainly remember the pain of lives lost, isolation, and a struggle for equity – but I am confident that I will also remember a moment of brightness and hope that was reachHIRE.  The task of delivering a meaningful learning experience to students in a virtual landscape was daunting – but we delivered.  I believe this reachHIRE student participant said it best –

“Coming into reachHIRE I was very skeptical because I thought it would be the same old talk that I need to go to college and I need to do this and that. Surprisingly, it wasn’t like that at all, the staff understood that everyone has a variety of interests and they spoke about options for each of those interests. I even related to many students. I have a new viewpoint on colleges now and I have an idea of what career I might go into. Thank you reachHIRE for this wonderful experience.”

Author: Sara Wells, Manager

Sara Wells has been working on issues related to career and youth development for over a decade.  She came to USG in 2016 to coordinate the Career Experience Opportunities (CEO) Program – a pilot career intervention for 100 college students hailing from underserved high schools in Montgomery County.  Based on the program’s success, Wells was able to work with colleagues to design a strategic plan to apply best practices from CEO to a much larger audience of students in the Achieving Collegiate Excellence & Success Program (ACES).  Wells now serves as the ACES Career Readiness Manager, overseeing career related programming for thousands of students across Montgomery County’s academic pathway.  Her work now impacts students at Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery College, and USG.

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