5 Steps in Supporting Underserved Talent in Career Pathways

serita acker

By Serita Acker, internationally recognized creator of academic programs to increase underrepresented students in the STEM fields and skillsgapp advisor //

As the Executive Director of Clemson University’s PEER WISE , a program designed to educate, recruit, and retain underrepresented populations in STEM fields, I understand the keys to success and the pressing needs of underserved students.

With an empathetic understanding of the intricate “how to” in crafting pathways for these students to invest in their promising futures, I offer these five pivotal steps. Not only do they cultivate academic excellence but also instill empowerment, inviting students to dream of futures brimming with boundless possibilities. Please join me on this transformative journey as we explore the blueprint for a brighter, more inclusive educational landscape.

1. Building Rapport: A Foundation for Success

To bridge the skills gap, it’s essential to build strong relationships within the community you’re trying to reach, because if you’re invested in them, they will be invested in you. This means embedding yourself, understanding its unique challenges, and appreciating its strengths. 

At PEER WISE we actively work towards becoming an integral part of our community, fostering trust and collaboration. This begins with emails to schools, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits. Our engagement plans always include: emails, phone calls, letters, and calls to action within our own community circles. Clear, articulate communication is key. We build databases of our surrounding community, with contact information and notes. We communicate with these community partners our communication timelines, strategies, and even ask for their suggestions to get our outreach programs out. Their support will be the driving force of your success.

2. Investing in Growth and Success

Once a connection is established, the next step is investing in the growth and success of underserved students. In my impassioned quest for educational empowerment, I champion mentorship programs that weave a powerful connection between college students and their middle school counterparts. Imagine the magic when younger minds catch a glimpse of themselves in their mentors—heroes who illuminate the winding path toward higher education, offering not just guidance but also the invaluable gift of profound insight. This is more than a mentorship; it’s a beacon of inspiration, paving the way for dreams to take flight.

3. Providing a Roadmap: “How To” for Success

Empowerment comes from knowledge, which is why I’m all about igniting the spark of enthusiasm in younger students by providing them with a vibrant roadmap for navigating their educational adventures. “Having a community of other students in STEM,” says PEER WISE mentor, Liz Parler, “means you can collaborate through a similar walk.” Empowering communities with resources that reinforce career development while having fun is key. Imagine the excitement when students become heroes in their own story, sharing their personal tales of challenges conquered and triumphs celebrated. It’s not just guidance; it’s a joyous journey of shared experiences, turning college dreams into exhilarating realities for these aspiring minds. Let’s paint a vivid picture of inspiration and set the stage for dreams to soar!

“Having a community of other students in STEM means you can collaborate through a similar walk.”

PEER WISE mentor, Liz Parler

4. Building Resources and Communicating with Parents and Caregivers

Recognizing the vital role parents and caregivers play in their children’s educational journey, PEER WISE approaches this collaboration with care and understanding. We engage with parents, highlighting the significance of a strong math curriculum and offering valuable insights into funding resources for college. This collaborative endeavor isn’t just about academics; it’s a shared commitment to building a robust support system around our students, where success becomes a collective goal we all strive to achieve together. This is a relationship we honor and protect most dearly.

5. Hiring Cultural Sensitivity Consultants

With a heartfelt understanding, I place high value on the significance of embracing and respecting the cultural sensitivities and needs within the communities we serve. It’s a call to schools and businesses to welcome consultants adept in navigating cultural nuances. This thoughtful step ensures your programs are crafted with precision, meeting the distinct requirements of each community. In doing so, you not only foster inclusivity but also cultivate a vibrant sense of belonging, making every member of our community feel seen, heard, and celebrated.

Conclusion: A Future of Possibilities Communities need the resources that keep them abreast and engaged for increased knowledge about all pave ways and opportunities. By building rapport, investing in growth, providing roadmaps, involving parents, and embracing cultural sensitivity, we can collectively bridge the gap and empower underserved and underrepresented students to reach their full potential. As we move forward, let us strive to build a world where education is truly an equalizer, opening doors of opportunity for all.

Tina Zwolinski on Being Mission-Driven to Reach Underserved Youth Through Gaming

This post is part of The Founder Factor, where you go behind the scenes with South Carolina’s most impactful entrepreneurs so that you can discover the strategies, ideas, and mindsets you need to unlock your next business breakthrough. The Founder Factor is brought to you by Designli (South Carolina’s top app development firm) and Word of Web

Stepping into the world of gaming to help the younger generation have a brighter future with more job opportunities, Zwolinski has broken the barriers of career awareness and access through innovative technology. Read full blog here.

In 1997, Tina Zwolinski launched a branding and marketing agency that she spent the next 23 years growing and expanding. While working with Millennials and then Gen Z in the marketing arena, she began to see the pressure put on youth to follow the high school to 4-year college path as the only solution to finding a career. Zwolinski saw this on a deeper scale as her nonprofit work took her to underserved youth who weren’t shown the opportunities out there. “I began to ask, ‘What can we do differently, and what would that look like? But I never would have thought the answer would mean exiting my company,” she says.

But in 2020, that’s exactly what she did. Exiting her business, Zwolinski was on a mission to connect youth to the millions of career opportunities that didn’t require the traditional 4-year degree path. This led her to form her startup company called skillsgapp, which produces Skillionaire Games™. “Foundationally, we are a workforce pipeline development company,” she explains. “But as our mission, we connect youth to life-changing careers through game-changing play.” 

According to Zwolinski, students make decisions about what they “want to be” based on what they see, and in schools, they only see a select few careers like doctors, lawyers, and teachers. However, skillsgapp helps create career and pathway awareness for students through 10 different games, all of which focus on in-demand careers that are often overlooked or stigmatized. “We introduce careers to a student from entrance to exit,” she says. “They are put in environments that let them see themselves, as any gender or race, in various careers, showing them what average salaries are, what local colleges have programs for these fields, and practicing the skills needed for that career. For some students, going through a game means they are ready to sit for certification, allowing them to go straight into a job.”  Read full blog here.

  • Discover ways to engage with your workforce pipeline earlier
  • Scale career awareness and pathway access, especially for the underserved
  • Gain a competitive advantage for recruitment supported by meaningful data