High school educators in Houston are reimagining their students' futures

BridgeYear uses a multi-pronged approach to engage students after high school graduation, beginning with tech-savvy advising and Career Test Drives.

Every year, thousands of high school students graduate in Houston, Texas. Some have a plan, and head to a four-year college with their majors selected and classes scheduled. Others struggle to decide what to do next.

High school educators Victoria Chen and Victoria Doan created a nonprofit called BridgeYear in 2016 to help students bridge a gap they saw between graduation and a path after high school.

“We worked at a school where a lot of our students would be the first in their family to go to a four-year college,” Chen says.

“In Houston, we work with low-income communities that often have limited opportunities for economic mobility, so given that context we wanted to provide other options for students after high school. Some of them were successful in four-year schools, but the majority couldn’t afford that option, or other circumstances got in the way.”

career fair in gym BridgeYear sets up traditional career fairs, but with a hands-on twist. (Photo: BridgeYear)

BridgeYear uses a multi-pronged approach to engage students, beginning with advising and Career Test Drives, during which high-schoolers “try-on” different careers in a simulated environment.

Advising continues past high school graduation, and through the end of students’ first semester in community college, or first few months in a training program or entry-level job.

The organization partners with high schools, community colleges, training programs, and employers to create pathways for their (to date) 6,500 high school participants across the Houston area.

A lot of students are told that a four-year college degree is their only option for success, which frankly isn't true, so we focus on awareness and exposure to other options,” Doan says.

“The next layer is connecting them to opportunity, whatever pathway they choose. We are really focused on corporate partners who have a hiring need and want to grow their pipeline straight from the community. We primarily target high-growth, high-demand jobs — anything from electricians and plumbers to phlebotomists and pharmacy technicians.”

kids work on electricity projects Chen and Doan created BridgeYear as the missing link connecting Houston students to viable and accessible career opportunities. (Photo: BridgeYear)

Students engage with these career opportunities hands-on at Career Test Drives, set up like traditional career fairs but with each booth offering the opportunity to simulate what workers do on the job. Each career requires less than a four-year degree, and more than ninety percent of students who attended reported learning about a new profession.

“I was able to see what I did and did not like, and I was also able to see what it takes to do these jobs on a day-to-day basis, and the skills needed,” said one student after a Career Test Drive.

Chen and Doan present these experiences in contrast to more traditional approaches aimed at exposing students to post-graduate opportunities. “So, traditionally people give out brochures, or tell people to go online and read or watch a video. Sometimes people bring in guest speakers,” Doan says.

"It doesn’t give students a good sense of whether or not they could see themselves in a job. "Particularly because we work with students who might not have family or friends who know about these opportunities, a lot of this information is new to them. Videos and speakers can often seem abstract and often use specialized lingo, whereas a Career Test Drive gives students something concrete they can walk away with."

students learn plumbing techniques Traditional methods of career exploration often fail to engage students and many post-high school pathways are often omitted. (Photo: BridgeYear)

After Career Test Drives, continued advising connects students directly to employers, or to community college or vocational training. BridgeYear's founders wanted to make sure supports were available to students — even after high school graduation.

In a large metropolitan area like Houston, it is often difficult for young people to meet in person with counselors and nonprofits.

"We use a tech platform that allows us to communicate with students through text messages, which reaches students where they are the most — on their phones! The platform also allows us to track students' progress and keep our costs down while working with a large number of students," Chen said.

Their ultimate goal is not to point students in any specific direction, but rather to guide them to different opportunities available.

"There are pros and cons to whatever path students choose," Chen said. “We are trying to help people make the best decision for whatever their situation is.”

Recently, the organization began partnering with Houston Community College to recruit new students.

"This year, they have brought us to nine different high schools where students traditionally don't enroll in post-secondary education," Chen said. "Together, we want to change the philosophy around community college, and some students [only] seeing it as a last resort, and we are hoping this outreach leads to high enrollment rates next fall.”

students receive career training in nursing BridgeYear reimagines career exploration by moving away from static pamphlets or tours and towards dynamic activities for self-exploration. (Photo: BridgeYear)

Chen and Doan emphasize that data sharing and continued collaboration with organizations is key to changing career and educational opportunities for students over time. Their organization focuses on advising and helping individual students in the short term, while also looking at potential long term changes at the institutional level.

"A core part of our work is to comb through our data to notice specific barriers that are preventing our students from achieving their goals. Then we work with schools and other organizations to eliminate those barriers for the next cohort," Doan said. “Then, we will be serving more students than we ever could independently.”

headshot of writer Meghan Holmes

Meghan Holmes is an Alabama-born, New Orleans-based freelance writer and documentarian. She has a master's degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and is a fellow at Loyola's Institute of Environmental Communication. She also serves as project director of a nonprofit, Righteous Fur, working to connect regional artists and designers to nutria trappers in south Louisiana.

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