The Worcester Youth Leadership Institute helps students chart their own path

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It’s approaching noon on the morning of July 8, and 19 students crowd around Eric Sutman, Technocopia’s chief operating officer, who demonstrates some of the tools available to local businesses in the downtown maker space. The students are silent, but their eyes rarely leave Sutman as he shows the woodcutting and metalworking tools in action. The students range in age from 15 to 21 and all come from different backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: they are all enrolled at the Worcester Youth Leadership Institute.

The program is a partnership between the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, MassHire Central Workforce Board, United Way of Central Massachusetts, United Families for Change, Worcester Community Action Council and the City of Worcester Youth Opportunities Office with support from program sponsors Clark University, DCU, GFI Partners and Reliant Medical Group, the sponsors of this program.

According to Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce WRCC Executive Vice President Karen Pelletier, students attend sessions every Friday for six weeks and the program focuses on a different area each week – “so they can learn about different industries in their hometown, and understand the different career paths that might be open to them and get to know different leaders in the different sectors.

Gong Cha owner Jason Vuong speaks with students from the Worcester Youth Leadership Institute.

The theme for the July 8 session was “Entrepreneurship”, which saw students engage in a panel discussion with local entrepreneurs and business leaders on the Technocopia floor at the WorcLab Incubator & Co-working. After the Technocopia tour, the students headed to Gong Cha, where owner Jason Vuong would discuss his process for opening his bubble tea shop near the Hanover Theater for the Performing Arts. Finally, the students headed to the Worcester Idea Lab co-working space, where they had lunch and ended the day with a mock “pitch session”.

Not all students are interested in becoming entrepreneurs, of course, but that hasn’t stopped them from learning applicable skills through the program. Alexander Schulz, 18, confesses that he initially only joined the program because he was invited by friends. Describing himself as an introvert, he was convinced to join the program because he saw it as good bridging work to help young people and refugees.

“I thought it might be a good idea to do,” says Schulz, “and (the program was) cool enough to help me come out of my shell and become an extrovert. Thanks to this, I can now approach people and have decent conversations without doing the stutter I always used to.

Walter Jovel is the coordinator of the Worcester Youth Leadership Institute.

Schulz envisions a career in the military and plans to go to college and join the military reserve while in college. Similarly, 16-year-old Hazel Vath is determined to become a pediatric nurse, not an entrepreneur, but that hasn’t stopped her from benefiting from the program, including watching how the program managers work with young people. “It gives me an extra boost in my knowledge of leadership and how to work with children, which will also improve my career in the future.”

For Pelletier, the program is “really just a question of exposure. Today it’s about entrepreneurship,” she says, “but every week is something different, and I think what they’ll hear every week is that the people they hear, who are experts in this field and doing this work, didn’t want to do this when they were in high school. We all take these different paths in life, and you end up somewhere different. It’s pretty good for them to hear that. A lot of times kids – we have sophomores in high school all the way up to sophomores in college in this program – they might think they don’t know what they want to do… so it’s good for them to hear, ‘You know what? It’s pretty standard.

Technocopia COO Eric Sutman hosts a demonstration for Worcester Youth Leadership Institute students.

Pelletier says the goal of the program is “to help create a pipeline for future community leaders.” Walter Jovel, coordinator of the Worcester Youth Leadership Institute, agrees, but stresses that the program is not about pointing kids in one direction.

“It’s about how to learn basic job skills that can help them get their first job or second job or help them graduate from college or high school,” says Jovel. For Jovel, who says he’s been with the program for seven years, the key isn’t pushing students down a predetermined path, but rather giving them the skills and experience to successfully forge their own path, wherever it can lead them. He says there is a shift right now of students automatically going to college, but instead pursuing trades.

“We try to promote that,” he says, “because we think a lot of people aren’t ready for college, or shouldn’t invest all that time and come out the other side saying, ‘Can -Maybe it wasn’t for me. Maybe I should have done something else. We see this experience in many other adults, and we try to make young people understand that you don’t have to go to university to succeed.

Does it work? Vath seems to think so, saying, “I just think, even though you’re not going to be an entrepreneur, I think I learned a lot from their mistakes, their challenges, their growth as people, their growing their business…you can take that and apply it to yourself, growing as human beings. So I took in a lot of how they talked about overcoming challenges and growing as people.

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