Gone are the days when your young son would dress up as a pretend firefighter. Now, a teenager, he is making career decisions in high school.
Lee Magnet High School senior Cayla R. is an artist. When she started high school, she wasn’t planning to make a living in the arts. “I never thought I would go into art as a career choice,” she says. “I always thought it would be a hobby.”
For her capstone senior project, Cayla created and led a “healing arts” class for breast cancer patients at Woman’s Hospital. In the first session, they drew hearts divided into different colored sections, each representing “things I love” and shared the things they were thankful for with each other.
If not for her project, she might not even know that art therapy existed. “I can see myself doing art therapy as a career,” Cayla says. “If I could find a career path that dealt with community service and art, that would be the best of both worlds.”
Kids usually only have a vague idea of what they want to be when they grow up. Educators say that letting students sample a variety of possibilities gives them a better chance of finding a fulfilling career.
“It begins with exposure,” says Jewell Simon, who teaches the Lee High capstone course. Parents are the first teachers, he says, so Simon suggests trying to provide a range of experiences for your children. He also urges students to “think broadly” in their academics. If they’re interested in computer science, that’s great, but they shouldn’t focus on one technology.
It’s good for students to have a career plan, Simon says, but parents shouldn’t panic if their child deviates from that path. Ruling out certain careers is helpful, too. “As long as they’re trying,” he says, “at least they know what they don’t want to do.”
Lee High students are generally college-bound, says Cindy Perret, assistant principal of academic affairs. Most are drawn to one of three concentrations: engineering, biomedicine, or digital media, but they’re not locked in if they want to switch. Guest speakers, projects, internships, and career survey courses help them learn about careers in each field.
Lee High students also take the ASVAB, a battery of aptitude tests designed to predict academic and occupational success in the U.S. military. Schools aren’t prodding students to enlist, but the assessment helps students see where their skills align with various careers. “If I want to go into aerospace engineering, and I’m not good in math,” she says, “I either need to bump up my math classes, or I might need to look at doing something else.”
Ascension Parish public school students start learning about different types of careers and doing interest inventories in middle school, says Ronda Matthews, who supervises career and technical education for the system.
The system contracts with Kuder, a provider of “evidence-based career assessment, education planning, and guidance resources,” according to the company’s website. Interested juniors and seniors can choose a medical program, based at St. Amant High School, a culinary program at Dutchtown High School, or the technology center at East Ascension High School.
By the time students reach their senior year, Matthews hopes they have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing after graduation, and many leave with job-skill certifications already in hand. But if, for example, a child who never planned to attend college suddenly changes his or her mind, there are ways to catch up. “We would help them and guide them as much as possible to whatever post-secondary institution they would want to go to,” Matthews says. “If they want go to the workforce, we can handle that too.” She also urges parents to fill out the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] as soon as they possibly can.
Education shouldn’t end in high school, says Dutchtown High School counselor Cara Stutzman, but not every student needs college to find a career. Community college is always an option for students who are interested in a university education but are not quite ready for a four-year school, she notes.
“High school is an opportunity for them to try different things,” Stutzman says. “If they don’t know [what they want to do for a living], I think that’s fine.” Parents shouldn’t panic if a child wants to change course, she says. Like many of us, Stutzman changed majors in college, so she can empathize.
The most important thing for parents, she says, is exposing your child to as many options as possible, including internships, job shadowing, and visiting college campuses. Even in primary school, it’s not too early to talk about what the child enjoys, and which careers might play to their strengths. ■