Originally published on blog.scholastic.com.
By Ashly Lytle
Recently, I skipped my high school reunion. Why? I have a distaste for small talk, and remembering my GPA, it was the last place I wanted to revisit. For many reasons, my high school was the last place I wanted to revisit. Yet when the volunteer opportunity arose at Lenovo, where I work, to visit high school students on “Lenovo in the Classroom Day”—through our partnership with NAF—I decided to do it. Still, the idea of entering a business class filled with 30 sophomore students felt exceedingly ironic: How would someone who regularly skipped class and spent more time in the principal’s office than doing schoolwork provide a positive foundation for students on the topic of career readiness? What credibility would I have to encourage these kids to attend college, let alone graduate?
Let’s face it: the majority of us didn’t wake up one morning at the age of 16 knowing exactly what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. Students are told to abide by Common Core practices, do their homework, take tests, study and pass the SATs, and so on. But once they’re out of high school, most of them find themselves asking, “What do I want to do for the next 50 years of my life?”
Prior to my visit to Milpitas High School, NAF helped facilitate a conference call with the business teacher whose class I’d be visiting. After learning there were a number of students in the class who were underachieving, I switched my approach from a safe, cookie-cutter “Lenovo workforce introduction” and decided instead to focus on what it takes to be successful at an innovative company like Lenovo: life goals. If the students could relate to my experience of overcoming adversity, or better yet, learn from my mistakes, perhaps they could take away something valuable as they discovered more about themselves.
What I’ve found is that the only way to create an open and honest environment with strangers is to expose my own flaws. Coincidentally, my high school yearbook is titled “Exposed,” so I brought it with me as physical evidence. I asked the student sitting to my left to read aloud the first couple of peer entries.
Entry 1: “Ashly, it was great meeting you this year. I am glad we had science together even though you were barely here.. .”
Entry 2: “Hey girl, it was fun having 1st period together even though you were never there . . .”
The room filled with laughter, followed immediately by a wave of questions. Even the quietest students put away their cell phones and sat up in their chairs. I had their attention. That feeling of engagement and raw interest is one I’ll never forget.
Once we covered how to get out of hypothetical, self-induced holes (and how not to dig those holes any deeper), we talked about what I like to call “The Readiness Factor.” My own lack of college or career readiness led me to attend a local community college prior to transferring to University of California, Riverside.
Here’s what I told the students: “If you don’t know what you want to do for the rest of your life at 16 years old, challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and do what scares you (for example, me . . . right now . . . presenting to all of you). Really explore who you are and try new things. Continue to try, and never stop trying. Commit to something and finish it. Create a network of personal and professional resources. Before you know it they’ll be lifelong advocates, your support system when you need it most. Never be afraid to ask questions. The hunger to learn will propel you toward success. And though you may never feel ready, you will be.”
Some students were encouraged when learning how “green” I was when I entered the technology industry. I was fresh out of college, and literally had no idea what CPU stood for. They needed to understand that it’s okay to be a novice! It’s okay not to know! But if they’re willing to put forth the effort, their dream job will no longer be just that: a dream. It will, in fact, become a tangible reality that is wholly within their grasp.
It was utterly rewarding to nurture their self-confidence and hope. Students shouted out their dream jobs: “Network engineer!” “Police officer!” and my favorite, “The lady on my favorite show ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ [Mrs. Keating, District Attorney]!” Of course, they were also concerned with the essential question, “How much money will I make?”
I’m confident that our discussion about internship opportunities and the importance of optimistic exploration will help these students identify the knowledge and skills they’ll need to pursue a successful career.
Before I knew it, there was no time left for the career networking activity I’d planned, and kids were rushing up to take a picture with me before scurrying off to their third-period class. I’m elated to have been a part of these kids’ lives, even for just an hour. They now know that they will constantly face decisions and have to choose between the easy way and the right way—and if they choose the right way, success can be theirs. Though I chose to take the long road to get to where I am today, I’m thankful for what I learned along the way and hopeful that they can learn from my experience. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity and thank all the people who were involved. Special thanks to@NAFCareerAcads and @LenovoEducation!
Ashly Lytle, @Lenovo_Lytle, is a higher-education account executive at Lenovo. She is based in Northern California.