Several weeks ago, we hosted a dinner for eight Project Coach alums. They are all 19-24 years old and when they graduated from high school in Springfield, each of them had a promising plan and a focused trajectory. Most of them had been involved in Project Coach for all of high school and several of them had started participating in Project Coach when they were in middle school. The focus of our dinner conversation was around the question: What was your experience after high school? How have things been going?
“It’s hard. Harder than I thought it would be,” was the refrain that kept on surfacing. For those who have persisted in college – it has been hard. For those that started college, but then went in a different direction – it has been hard. For those who planned on going to college, but then started working – it has been hard. We spent time unpacking what they meant and heard themes such as “feeling unsure about what to do next” and “uncertain about how to figure out how to move forward on life and career plans.” We also heard several of these young adults describe the importance of mentors in guiding them past obstacles that arose as they adjusted to college and new family and financial responsibilities. It was a moving discussion, and I came away from the gathering with the sense that despite our youth having a solid and actionable plan coming out of high school, starting college or finding work presented a series of daunting challenges. While it was sobering to hear them share the challenges of post-high school life, their stories were also uplifting in that they were still devising plans and seeking out new pathways for what is next in their life. In short, “things were hard” but these young adults are focused on “what’s next.”
From our founding in 2003, we aspired for the Urban Education Initiative (UEI) at Smith College to be a space where we design and develop innovative out-of-school practices while providing Smith students opportunities to learn about teaching, youth development, and educational research. In doing this work, we have developed deep and meaningful relationships within the Springfield community and with many youth who have participated in Project Coach while being mentored by Smith students. Our program’s original mission was to support youth through high school and help position them for positive next steps after high school. While we intended for high school graduation to be the moment when youth transitioned out of our program, conversations with our alums have us thinking deeply about how we can provide support for them as they transition to adulthood.
In an effort to understand this challenge in more systematic ways, our UEI team convened to write a federal research grant to explore the post-high school experiences of young adults in Springfield. This fall we were thrilled to be one of 14 research teams to be chosen from among a pool of 225 applicants nationwide.
This grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service is unique in that it requires a community-based, participatory method of inquiry. This means that the young adults who participated in Project Coach will return to serve as researchers, helping to develop research questions and conduct inquiries in partnership with our Smith team. This way of working shoulder-to-shoulder with our youth and young adults has been central to our work since the beginning of PC and UEI, when PC Co-Founder Don Siegel and I set out to learn from and with young people about what inspires and motivates them to learn, lead, and grow into their best selves.
The Smith College student newspaper, The Sophian, recently published an article about this research, and you can read more about it here: College receives a $99,357 grant for community-based youth programs
I look forward to sharing more with you about this work as our research evolves.
Project Coach Co-Founder
Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor of Education and Child Study
Faculty Director, Urban Education Initiative and Project Coach