Iowa Central is making career connections

Iowa Central Career Connections is a work-based learning program designed to help prepare students to be successful as they transition into the workforce. By connecting them to local businesses to explore an assortment of fulfilling career options through work-based learning.We partner with educators and businesses to help create a positive and lasting impression on our future workforce by helping them attain the appropriate skills and knowledge of careers in their interest so they can be better prepared for life after high school and make better post-secondary decisions. In the summer of 2016, Iowa Central was awarded a grant to partner with Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services to assist high students who have disabilities and/or receive education services under an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan to become career ready. The four local high schools that are served under this grant are Clarion-Goldfield-Dows, Eagle Grove, Southeast Valley and Webster City. These high schools signed a letter of intent agreeing to partner with Iowa Central Community College to receive services that prepare their students for life after high school.

As a work-based learning specialist who works with special education students, my role is to help them become self-advocates for themselves, learn more about their disability, and help them develop strategies to better cope with their disability and navigate their surroundings. I provide individual one-on-one services to approximately 200 students. I am passionate about working with students and helping them grow as individuals. I actively strive to provide students with the necessary skills and tools needed to succeed in school. I want them to be successful after high school. Throughout the school year, I develop and implement activities that aim to enhance student learning and teach them what to do in certain situations when they venture out into the real world. Job prepping skills, such as mock interviews, job applications, resume, cover letters and basic hygiene skills are some of the most common activities. This may all seem common sense for most people but for students with disabilities it is not always common sense. Reviewing these skills and information makes a huge difference. Some students are unable to process and learn these everyday tasks. Repetition is key while working with students with disabilities until they are able to complete a task independently.

After students conquer job prepping skills, the next step is to do a job shadow. A job shadow is where students are given an opportunity to go to a business in their community and learn more about that business and/or a particular job. Students accompany an experienced worker as they perform their job and learn first-hand what it is like to do that career. Some students do a job shadow and realize that the career that they shadowed is not for them, while others get lucky the first time and know they want to do that specific career. It is extremely difficult for some lower functioning students to do a job shadow as some businesses will not allow it and others are not comfortable having them on-site. Students with disabilities are often stereotyped as being “too difficult” or “too complicated” to work with. In reality, these individuals are very easy to work with. They are excited about the opportunity to work. And oftentimes, their desire to help and make a difference in this world far exceeds the average person.

This past school year, I had one student who wanted to job shadow and I struggled to find a business. This student is low functioning and autistic. He had a passion for cleaning. After many setbacks, we were able to set up work experiences at five different jobs sites doing what he loves to do- clean. These experiences provided him the opportunity to have three paying jobs above minimum wage this summer. My hope is to educate businesses and community members to learn more about people with disabilities so that they can see they are employees worth hiring.

This summer, Iowa Central partnered with Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services and the Fort Dodge Senior High Transitional Alliance Program (TAP) to provide summer camps. Every Wednesday from June 20 to August 1 we host summer camps that focus on providing independent living and career readiness skills. Some of the camps that students have attended are: food safety skills, food prepping, coping skills, and career exposure. All students who attend summer camp, receive a certificate of completion.

With limited funding for students, we started doing a fundraiser called “Going the Distance for Disabilities” a 2 mile run, walk or push event to help with extra costs the grant would not cover. Our first event for “Going the Distance for Disabilities” was in June 2018, we raised over $1,500. Oct. 6 we will be hosting a two-mile color run. It will be at the Rosedale Rapids Aquatic Center in Fort Dodge starting at 9 a.m. Early registration is $25 and you may register by calling 515-574-1910 or hawley@iowacentral.edu.

Working with students in special education is never easy, but the impact you make on their life is worth every minute it takes. The faces on these students can change your perspective on life. While a certificate of completion may be a “silly” piece of paper to some, it means the world to students in special education.

MaKenzie Hawley is a work-based learning specialist-VRIN at Iowa Central Community College.