Meant to achieve

Meant to achieve

< Back to Articles | Topics: Skilled workforce


Joey Fitzpatrick

The transition from high school graduation to “the rest of your life” is never a simple and easy process. New graduates face an often bewildering range of educational and career options in a rapidly changing economy. For graduates also facing challenges with academic skills, independent living or personal wellness, this transition can be difficult indeed.

Nova Scotia Community College’s Achieve program helps prepare these graduates for life after high school by focussing on employability, independent living, personal wellness and participation in the community. Through interactive classroom-based groups and real-life work settings, this one-academic-year program is designed to provide students with essential self-awareness, confidence and social skills.

“There’s a certain rhythm and process to attending a post-secondary institution and with that comes a level of academic independence and self-reliance,” says NSCC President, Don Bureaux.

Kiera Sparks Lucas graduated from the Achieve program in June and she says the most valuable lesson she took from the experience was the importance of following her dreams. And as an experienced world traveller, she knows what she wants to do. Sparks Lucas wants to work in the travel and tourism sector, specifically assisting people with disabilities with their travel needs. She especially wants to help young people travel independently, without the accompaniment of parents.

In her travels to Hawaii, Mexico and Portugal, Sparks Lucas has experienced first-hand some of the issues and barriers that can arise at airports, hotels, etc. She has cerebral palsy which limits her mobility, as well as a visual learning challenge.

“Travelling in a wheelchair is not easy,” she says. “They’re starting to have people with disabilities work at airports, which I think is great.”

She understands the concern that many parents have about letting their special needs child travel the world without their accompaniment.

“I can see why parents worry,” she says. “It’s not that they don’t want their kids to travel and see the world. But they’re worried that it may not be safe.”

The origins of the Achieve program can be traced to the Strait Area campus of NSCC in 2007.

“Our principal there, Tom Gunn, could see a looming shortage of human capital across the province, which meant a shortage of people who would be able to participate in the emerging economy,” Bureaux recalls. “He realized that it was incumbent upon to the college to live and breathe our value of accessibility.”

NSCC reached out to industry partners to help design an educational program for young people who face barriers. Achieve was designed to equip students with a base set of both professional and interpersonal skills. This would form the foundation that would allow them to then participate in an economy being transformed by automation, big data, robotics and artificial intelligence.

“Because we’re in this transition it is so critical that people have a set of base skills and the ability to live a full and independent life,” Bureaux says. “We have to be careful that nobody is left behind and that we don’t marginalize people or make them feel that they’re not included.”

In 2016 the Nova Scotia government took note of the success of Achieve and together with NSCC and partners in the public and private sector began to expand the program across the province. Achieve is now available on eight of 13 NSCC campuses.

“Every Regional Centre of Education now has access to the Achieve program,” notes Nova Scotia Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, Zach Churchill.

NSCC’s proven model of connecting students with industry is applied to Achieve. The program is supported by a number of industry partners that provide both work placements for participants and employment opportunities for Achieve graduates. Students are encouraged to articulate their interests, passion, strengths and weaknesses, to ensure the most appropriate work placement.

“The program has a work-integrated learning component that allows students to explore many different options in community and employment engagement,” Bureaux says. “We get rave reviews from our partners about the quality and commitment of our students and their desire to do great work.”

The work placement partners with Achieve include companies both large and small and from the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, Churchill points out.

“That’s important because we want students to see the wide breadth of employment opportunities that are out there.”

Achieve students begin the autumn session in the classroom and the work experience is introduced gradually, at a few days per week. The students come back to spend time in the classroom — in the peer group/support group environment, where they can review and reflect on what they’re learning on the job site. In the winter/spring term the students will spend four to five days per week in their work placement.

“It’s a building process, to make sure they’re comfortable and that they’re going to be successful in their work experience,” Bureaux points out.

Achieve is open to high school graduates between the ages of 18 and 21 with a diploma that indicates Individual Program Plan designated credits. Applicants may have or have had challenges demonstrating competency in areas such as the development of academic, social or independent living skills. Participants have to be able to manage or be responsible for their own transportation to and from the program. Participants face a range of barriers, including physical challenges, autism, cognitive impairment or a learning “difference.”

“I don’t like the word ‘disability’ because people have many different learning styles,” Bureaux says. “As a college we need to provide an approach to education that works universally, for all different learning patterns and learning styles.”

While Achieve provides students with vocational and technical education, there is also an emphasis on interpersonal and communication skills. Developing skills and attributes around issues like teamwork, acceptance of differences and conflict resolution can help to prepare students for success in the wider world.

“Many Achieve students become involved in student council at NSCC,” Churchill points out. “They’re expanding their social network. When you start doing better in your learning environment it gives you the confidence to start doing better socially as well.”

Since the program’s expansion across the province between 75 and 85 per cent of Achieve graduates have been able to find employment, Churchill adds.

“It’s because of the connections they make, the mentoring that happens and the internships that we’ve achieved the level of success we’ve had with this program.”

Some 120 students across the province are currently participating in the Achieve program and approximately 10 per cent of Achieve graduates go on to re-enrol in another NSCC program.

“They’ve been able to build confidence and a set of skills that are foundational to success in other programs,” Bureaux adds.

An accessible post-secondary education system is a prerequisite for a having a socially and economically vibrant province, he points out.

“When we can help students overcome barriers they can be immensely productive and a wonderful resource for industry. Life is full of opportunities and joy, as well as challenges and risks. We want to provide all our students with the resilience to deal with all kinds of life experiences.”

English was Sparks Lucas’s favourite subject when she attended Auburn Drive High School and she loves creative writing. She is also very much at ease in the public eye. For the last five years she has been an Easter Seals Ambassador, speaking and doing cheque presentations at special events and fundraisers, including the Halifax Chamber's 2019 Spring Dinner.

“I was really nervous at first,” she recalls. “But over time I’ve had more practice with it.”

The Achieve program has helped
her with the kind of life skills necessary for independent living. She has her own en suite apartment, does her own cooking and participates with Girl Guides, choir and cheerleading. She is currently participating in the Next Step program which helps people with disabilities find jobs in the community. She understands that achieving your dreams is not something that happens overnight.

“You need to break it down into small steps,” she says. “And no matter how long it takes you, just keep at it until you get there.”

< Back to Articles | Topics: Skilled workforce

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