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How Career Academies is Supporting Students with Real-World Summer Work Experiences

A high school student is fixing a part on a car as a part of Career Academies programming

Sareen Keenan


In a school year unlike any other, students were faced with continuing their education amidst a pandemic and civil unrest. The pressures brought by distance learning added to the existing commitments that young people hold related to work, family, education and community connections. As we learned so clearly from the young people at St. Paul Youth Services, this year was hard, particularly because there were no easy or immediate answers. Teachers didn’t know how long this disruption would last or what the end of the pandemic would look like.

As we head into summer and the expanded opportunities presented as pandemic restrictions lift, we need to hold these two truths at the same time: Young people are excellent AND young people are tired. Organizations and companies that have taken the time to center real-world work opportunities that combine passion, pay and flexibility will ultimately be poised to partner and support young people on their career journey this summer.

The Value of Pain Summer Opportunities

Greater Twin Cities United Way’s Career Academies innovation initiative partners with local schools and businesses to prepare Minnesota students for in-demand, high-wage careers and zero college debt.

A group of medical professionals together talking.

In our Career Academies Community of Practice, which consists of Career Academies funded partners and the career pathways community broadly, young scholars shared that they were focused on opportunities to grow over the past year, either through building their own businesses or getting jobs that support themselves and their families. Students who had access to a network were able to leverage that into opportunity during the pandemic. Connection is key.

It is important that we hold the truth that a large percentage of our young people are working jobs that help support their family. This means that paid work takes priority.

Leveraging the network of our employer relationships, one of the three core pillars of Career Academies is centered on related work experience for young people. Additionally, passion-based paid work experiences are great systems of support that we can create to support young people. Ideally, supervisors are entering with the mindset of “I see you, I support you, and I am here to learn from you.” It was that same learning orientation that drove the St. Louis Park school district to accept our challenge to hire youth in their community as educational consultants to the district. Youth research associates worked throughout the summer to answer what they identified to be the most pressing issue in their district: How can we get more Students of Color into advanced courses, and why aren’t they there already?

Young people in White Bear Lake became the first students in the country certified in Mental Health First Aid, providing care and mentorship to their peers within the school community. Students in Windom, MN built and ran their own student run business, Eagle Path Manufacturing. Excellence abounds!

Passion-Centered Work Experiences

As Career Academies partners support youth to explore the world of work, centering opportunities that activate passion will be paramount. For me, an outstanding example of passion-centered work experience can be found at Bridgemakers MN, who was a key player in partnership with Youth Prize to ensure that high school students received the unemployment benefits that they earned but were blocked from during the pandemic because of an archaic 1939 law. As Cole Stevens, founder and VP of Bridgemakers MN said in a recent presentation, “Not many people took us serious at first, but after we sued the state and won, suddenly people had a newfound respect for our power and interests.”

Looking to all the examples of excellence above, young people are ready and able to bring their talents to whatever this summer has to offer – let’s support them to step into their roles as changemakers.

About the Author

Sareen Keenan is a Senior Manager of Government and Institutional Relations. This is a restricted portfolio of work that focuses on wealth-building for individuals in the community. Prior to joining United Way, Sareen led career and technical education work at MCTC. She also founded Heartwood Montessori, a nonprofit early childhood center focused on equitable access to quality childcare and livable wage jobs for employees. Sareen holds a master’s degree in educational administration and undergraduate degrees in the sciences.

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