Collaborative workforce development guides YouthBuild alumni into continued education

By Becky Gropp

With the motto, “Your Path to Lifelong Learning,” Continuing Education at Heartland Community College is all about advancing education well beyond school.  

Just because you’ve earned a diploma doesn’t mean you’re done learning,” explained Continuing Education Director Angie Coughlin.

That logic is being applied to YouthBuild McLean County, a charter school that works with at-risk students to provide pathways to jobs, education, entrepreneurship, and other opportunities that lead to productive and contributing livelihoods. YouthBuild McLean County has served more than 2,000 youths since 1994, helping guide them towards obtaining a GED, job, or other productive path.

With support from AmeriCorps, students often graduate from YouthBuild with scholarships to continue their education. However, according to YouthBuild’s Director of Development Alicia Lenard, a majority of students aren’t ready to take the higher education degree route.

“There’s a bit of fear about college among some of our alumni, likely because it’s unfamiliar territory,” Lenard said.

To help students make good use of their scholarship dollars and continue their education, Lenard reached out to Heartland’s Continuing Education department. Working together, YouthBuild and HCC developed “Bridge,” a program that offers a short-term college experience to help get YouthBuild alumni acclimated to higher education.

“Bridge” includes a mix of online and traditional classroom curriculum for a variety of concentrations, including welding, building management and maintenance, food service sanitation, customer service for the restaurant industry, pharmacy tech, and information technology. Each program takes less than a month to complete and students can choose the focus that best meets their interest. At the end of the program, participants are given credentials related to their area of focus.

YouthBuild alumna Ariel Thompson is looking forward to putting her scholarship to use in the pharmacy tech program.

“I’ve always wanted a better future for me and my son,” she said. “This program is attractive in terms of salary and stability. People will always need medicine.”

To help students get acclimated to college, all classes are conducted on the Heartland campus, including the online portions - which are done in a computer lab. Classes include Heartland Continuing Education instructors as well as representatives from YouthBuild. Lenard and Coughlin feel this keeps students within reach of their comfort zone.

“A lot of these students have had a negative experience with public education and it takes them a while to trust people,” Lenard said. “This partnership allows for plenty of independence while still having structure and familiar people in place.

Coughlin added that Continuing Education’s intent is to make “Bridge” participants feel like Heartland students.

“They’re getting student IDs, access to the fitness center, bus passes and other benefits Heartland students get. We want them to feel comfortable in the education environment.

To contribute to the full college experience, “Bridge” programs include guest speakers as well as visits from deans and department chairs throughout the College.

In addition to furthering their education, “Bridge” helps students increase their ability for upward movement in their current or future jobs.

“Once students earn their credentials, employers are going to see they’ve taken steps to make themselves better,” Lenard said. “Overall, it will make them more employable or increase their marketability.”

The program empowers students to choose their own path of education.

Truly, students are choosing their destination and we’re here to help them be successful,” Coughlin said.