Everyone wants a fast track to a job they’ll love. And, what student wouldn’t enjoy the chance to develop leadership skills and explore a field of interest – before they enter college and the workplace?
America’s Career and Technical Student Organizations – or CTSOs – have a proud history of helping future professionals gain the skills and experience they’ll need to excel in a wide range of challenging careers, like health care, education, technology, business and finance, management and marketing, agriculture, or manufacturing. Many CTSOs got their start early in the last century. But today, these groups are intently focused on helping students to master 21st century realities.
At the event. Pictured, from left to right: Cole Simmons, Lyndsay Robinson, Devindra Persad, Kyle Clement, Arne Duncan, Carter Christensen, Daria Ferdin, Caleb Gum, Mollie Miller, and Brian Will
In February, to honor Career and Technical Education Month student representatives from nine of the nation’s CTSOs traveled to the Department from as far away as Florida, to meet with Secretary Duncan and Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier. Some of these students already attend college; others are high school students making plans for postsecondary education. All of them were eager to explain the ways that CTSOs – from the Future Business Leaders of America and Health Occupations Students of America, to SkillsUSA and the Technology Students Association – help make sure their members can seize the opportunities in today’s competitive economy.
The students discussed their CTSOs’ missions, goals, and recent events. Secretary Duncan asked how their involvement in these organizations is preparing them for success in college and careers. Devindra Persad answered, “I think being in a CTSO strengthens our minds and lets us know that when we graduate we will be doing something.”
Devindra should know: over the past seven years, he has served as HOSA’s Regional Secretary, Regional Vice President, and Florida HOSA State Southern Vice President. This involvement has led to real-world experiences at local level, with his neighborhood fire department, all the way to the national level, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Office of the Surgeon General.
The students expressed confidence in the skills their organizations have taught them, and described ways that their participation has allowed them to discover their passions and set a clearer course for the future. Nearly all of the CTSO groups host state and national competitions, as well as conferences for their members to network together and participate in development workshops.
SkillsUSA representative and New Jersey native Daria Ferdin made it clear that access is open to all interested students. “With joining a CTSO,” she said, “the great thing is that it doesn’t matter what race or religion or economic class you are; everyone is able to do it.” Many CTSOs provide scholarships and other forms of financial assistance for members with limited resources. Daria’s organization offers a wide umbrella for students interested in trade, technical and skilled service occupations; she explained that the lessons she’s learned during four years of membership, combined with her cinematic arts classes, have brought her dream of starting a production company within reach.
According to these youth advocates for CTSOs, there’s just one challenge: increasing the general public’s awareness of just how much these organization can help students. Carter Christensen serves as national President for DECA, a student organization focused on equipping emerging leaders and entrepreneurs for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management. “It’s not just about telling parents how great CTSOs are,” he noted, “but getting schools to recognize it, too.” Through DECA, Carter has spent the past year traveling and speaking at events across the United States. In addition to public and civic events, he has also served as spokesman on CTSO issues, representing DECA and other groups in meetings with policymakers in the capitol of his home state of South Dakota.
These students came to Washington with a mission: to offer Secretary Duncan and the Obama Administration their perspective on the advantages of CTSO participation. And, no one who met these articulate and motivated young people could doubt their message: career and technical student organizations provide the information and exposure students need to shape their college and career goals, along with experiences that help them feel confident and able to take charge of their futures.
Last year, in a speech at the FFA National Convention, Secretary Duncan told a cheering crowd of 15,000 CTSO members, “Our nation needs your skills, your passion, your compassion, and your talents to compete and prosper in a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy.”
The students who visited the Department in February made it clear that they were ready to answer the call – and that America’s CTSOs had helped them to get there.
This discussion is part of the ongoing Student Voices Series, where students engage with the Secretary of Education and senior staff to solicit and help develop recommendations on current programs and future policies.
Sam Ryan is special assistant and youth liaison at the U.S. Department of Education