What happens when the past, present and future collide?
Come on a journey with me, back in time to spring 2010.
Picture it: a town in Wisconsin with snow still on the ground, a persistently high crime rate, and a small liberal arts college at the heart of the community. The town is split in two by the river; the West side and the East side. The college is on the East side. No-one wants to live on the West side, with it’s stereotypical reputation for drugs, gangs, high unemployment and cheap housing.
I was caught in the middle: my wife worked at the college, but we lived on the West side, just across the river. I was also an outsider: I had a foreign (British) accent and was a mature student at the college (at 35, I was much older than the swarms of 18 – 21 year olds that formed the student body). I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere.
I was working on a degree in Education & Youth Studies, and that semester I was required to provide volunteer hours in an education setting. I reached out to Community Action, a local non-profit that manages a variety of programs with the goal of providing pathways out of poverty, and secured a placement with their Fresh Start education initiative.
Fresh Start offers an opportunity for young people aged 16 to 24, who dropped out of high school, to achieve their GED (General Education Development) or high school diploma, in just one year, on a full-time study program.
I must admit that I felt intimidated at first by this group of learners. These were young adults that had dropped out of high school for a various reasons: some had been in gangs; some already had children; some had been on drugs or involved in gun crime.
Yet, despite these obstacles, they were all given a second chance to complete their high school education, which would open up their future prospects. What made Fresh Start unique, however, is that alongside their academic studies, these students were expected to complete a construction course at the same time.
What did this look like? The learners spent half of their time in the classroom (with myself and their full-time tutors) and the rest of the time they were on a construction site, helping to build or renovate a house, under the guidance of professional builders. The houses they worked on were then sold, with all the profits going back into the Community Action organisation.
I spent five months volunteering with Fresh Start and it changed my views of this Wisconsin town. Yes, there was high unemployment, and a drug problem, and a gang problem. But, behind the statistics, these were young people struggling to get back on track, against all the odds, and there was this amazing organisation that had their back every step of the way, providing them with the skills they needed to improve their lives.
Let’s jump ahead now, to 2018. I had moved back to the UK from the US, with my wife and two young children, and had been working in an academic library for a few years, but was looking for a new challenge. I saw a job advertised at a local college of further of education, for an LSA (Learning Support Assistant) to work with young people who had not succeeded in mainstream school.
This time, these young people primarily had SEN needs and needed support to re-take GCSE English and Maths or to achieve Functional Skills qualifications, while also undertaking vocational courses. This sounded remarkably similar to my experiences with Fresh Start, so I applied.
This program is Fast Forward, and was my first step into working in the Further Education sector. Working as an LSA with complex young people is no easy task; at times, it felt like I was constantly trying to put out fires that might spark meltdowns or disagreements, whilst simultaneously finding ways to encourage learning engagement and support mental health.
I now teach GCSE English as well as Creative Writing in the same FE college. I still work with young people who have been let down by the mainstream school system, offering them a second chance to thrive and achieve.
I am constantly reminded of, and inspired by, those young people that I worked with at Fresh Start, in Wisconsin back in 2010, and often wonder what they are all doing now. I doubt they even remember me, but without them, I probably wouldn’t have such passion for FE and the second chances it provides everyday.