Rutgers: Helping Kids Find Their Callings

Rutgers University's Nontraditional Career Resource Center empowers students by challenging career stereotypes and encouraging social action. Read how this program is effecting change in young people.

John Chadwick is the Assistant Managing Editor for Rutgers Today.

The Nontraditional Career Resource Center encourages students to look beyond gender when choosing a career.

At a middle school in Brick Township, N.J., two eighth-graders developed a presentation that expressed the joys and hardships of their lives in immigrant families. At a high school in Marlboro, N.J., a young woman started a project to help kids in India whose parents are incarcerated. And at a school in Bergen County, N.J., a student started an intramural club for classmates who weren't on any sports teams.

Three projects. Three distinct visions of compassion and social justice. One common source: the Nontraditional Career Resource Center at Rutgers University.

The center, a state-funded program and part of the School of Management and Labor Relations, worked directly with those students, and others, to help them develop social-action projects.

Located in the Center for Women and Work, the NCRC's principal mission is to raise awareness about career paths that are considered nontraditional—those jobs in which one gender comprises 25 percent of the workforce or less. The center employs a range of outreach efforts—guest speakers, workshops, partnerships with employers and educators, and programs for students in grades 7 through 12—that allows it to reach many different audiences.

"What we want people to understand is that at the heart of it all, choosing a career should not be based on your gender," said Glenda Gracia-Rivera, associate director. "Girls may not be encouraged to go into the sciences or building trades because those are defined as male jobs. Boys may not be encouraged to become nurses or teachers because they are not considered nurturing enough."

One of the center's hallmark programs, the Career Summer Institute, began July 11 and brings 90 high-school students to Cook Campus at Rutgers for an intensive, one-week residential program that will focus on how to go about choosing a career. Students will learn about various careers, participate in workshops, and receive leadership training, all geared to developing their decision-making abilities. And like their predecessors, they'll be encouraged to develop social-action projects so they can take the values they learn during the week back to their communities. The projects, which are called Step Up!, aim at addressing inequities in the students' schools or towns.

"The kids come out super energized," Gracia-Rivera said. "So we help them come up with an issue. We tell them, 'you don't have to change the world, you just have to address something at the local level.'''

Indra Murti, who attended the institute two years ago and is now a Rutgers undergraduate student, came up with a project that went far beyond the local level. During a visit to India in the summer of 2008, she became aware of a residential school for children of parents in jail or deceased. After visiting and volunteering at the school, Murti said she was moved to do more for the kids, who are supported entirely by the nuns who run the school.

Returning to Marlboro High School, she formed a student club devoted to maintaining a relationship with the school in India. The American students and the Indian students became pen pals.

"When I saw the kids (in India), and I felt their enthusiasm, it made me really want to help them," Murti said.

Two eighth-graders in Brick Township, meanwhile, who attended the center's program for younger students, The Academy of Leadership and Equity, came up with an idea that inspired everyone in their school. The students, one of Indian descent and the other of Mexican origin, worked with their ESL teacher, Theresa Ryan-Botello, to develop an oral presentation that expressed their hopes and fears as immigrants in America.

"They felt they were misunderstood by teachers," Ryan-Botello said. "So our approach was: 'Instead of complaining, let's do something positive.'"

The presentation, "Many Worlds into One World," told of the students' ethnic background, examined the demographic changes in the middle school, and offered gentle tips on how to foster respect and greater communication within the school.

"They spoke from their heart, and that was really touching," Ryan-Botello said. "Many of the teachers were in tears."

All told, 10 students attending programs at the NCRC completed social-action projects, prompting the center's staff to hold an awards dinner for the kids and their families last spring at the Labor Education Center. The students received certificates and other prizes.

"Here are young people doing amazing things," Gracia-Rivera said. "I felt like they needed to be honored and recognized for their efforts."

Reprinted from Rutgers Today -

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