Image: The Opportunity Network
In a day and age when the widening income gap in the U.S. continues to deepen academic disparities among students, can education prevail as the ultimate equalizer? AiLun Ku, Director of Programs at The Opportunity Network says "hell yes!" Founded in 2003 by Brian Weinstein and Jessica Pliska, The Opportunity Network revolves around a six-year program that provides high-achieving high school and college students in underserved communities with access to career opportunities, esteemed professional networks and competitive colleges. With the unemployment rate for young people at 16 percent, nearly twice the national average, and a harsh, competitive work landscape pervading the country, an individual's network has never been more valuable. We caught up with AiLun to find out what happens when opportunity and the right network come knocking.
The Toolbox: Your program guides students while they're in high school and college, as well as when they're transitioning from college to internships. What have you learned from watching students experience these different stages?
AK: We learned that students’ savvy in building and mobilizing their support networks at critical junctures plays an important role in college and career success. When students connect with people who have gone through similar challenges and can share their experiences, it helps them see past temporary hurdles and persist.
The Toolbox: Is there a stage that seems to be more challenging for students than others?
AK: There are two stages that can be challenging for students: First when they transition from high school to college; second when they transition from college to career. From high school to college, students need to learn how to study differently, write differently, and even socialize differently. From college to career, students need to learn new ways to be independent, manage their own finances, ask for help, and advocate for themselves.
The Toolbox: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about students in underserved communities?
AK: I think challenges facing students from underserved communities are nuanced and we need to design and redesign nuanced solutions. Students from underserved communities do not all need the same types of support systems and interventions; each situation is individual.
The Toolbox: Are there any crazy success stories you'd like to share?
AK: We have many individual success stories! I think an amazing success story for The Opportunity Network and our students is our blossoming Peer Mentoring Program where upperclassmen mentor underclassmen -- either directly on the same campus or regionally. Students support each other in authentic and meaningful ways that are mutually developmental and beneficial for both sides.
The Toolbox: What advice can you give people who want to work in advancing education?
AK: Empathize and think long term. If education is the great equalizer, then remember to attack issues at both the micro and macro levels. The solutions that you design need to tackle today’s challenges and anticipate and prevent future problems.
The Toolbox: Why did you decided to personally dedicate your professional life to education?
AK: I worked for several years in higher education before making the transition to youth development/education work. My experience in higher education showed me that we need to close the access gap much earlier on. In graduate education, we weren’t seeing enough students from diverse backgrounds in the applicant pool. By then, it was too late to expand our pipeline of qualified applicants and students. Seeing this challenge first-hand really nurtured my desire to serve a younger population.
The Toolbox: What tools do you use regularly while on the job?
AK: We use Salesforce, Google Apps, and DropBox for data/file management and everyday work. In addition to those tools, we're looking into integrating Career Village, Canvas by Instructure, Sakai, Moodle and Class Dojo.
To learn about how you can support The Opportunity Network, check out their new site!