The power of connection shapes a student’s future
Apr 06, 2020
The power of connection shapes a student’s future
As the first in his family to attend college, Robin Lopez had lots of questions – and no one to guide him through the finer points of filling out applications and finding scholarships. So when his guidance counselor suggested that he join Future 5, an organization that helps Stamford students achieve their academic, career and life goals, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I integrated with their programs instantly,” recalls Lopez, who was then an incoming senior at Stamford’s Westhill High School.
Dedicated to helping youth realize their full potential, Future 5 serves several hundred students annually. As a grantee of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, its programs align with FCCF’s Thrive by 25 initiative, which empowers young adults to achieve self-sufficiency by age 25 by connecting them to career paths and postsecondary education.
Recognizing that low-income students have less access than more affluent peers, Future 5 takes a holistic approach to connecting students with services and support, from career exploration workshops to personal networks to advance entry to both college and the workforce.
“It’s all about addressing the opportunity gap,” says Rachel Dewey, Executive Director of Future 5. “We believe in the power of connection to bridge this gap – connection with people, and connection with resources.”
Students in grades 9 through 12 self-select as members by completing Future 5’s six-week Here to There program, a course that helps participants craft an actionable game plan for the future.
“What are their dreams? And what are their ‘gremlins,’ the things standing in the way of their dreams?” explains Dewey. “At the end of the six weeks, students have defined some short-term goals, long-term goals, key steps they can take to get there and ideas for overcoming those gremlins.”
For Lopez, Here to There was an unexpected game changer that helped him to clarify a personal vision for what he wanted to accomplish, and figure out how to get there.
“In high school, it was hard to be motivated in terms of my future because I didn’t know what it would be like,” Lopez recalls. “My family came here from Guatemala to give me the opportunity they never had to go to college and have a better life. So, I knew I wanted to take advantage of that opportunity, but I didn’t know how to go about it. The Here to There program really helped me set incremental goals so it was easier to stay motivated.”
Students who complete Here to There can access other Future 5 programming ranging from workshops to a clubhouse where youth can gather to do homework, enjoy snacks, and engage in enrichment programming like debates or games. They can also get tutoring services if they need academic support and participate in a leadership program that helps build confidence and experience. “If students have an idea”, says Dewey, “Future 5 aims to help make it happen”.
“We meet the kids where they are,” says Dewey. “Every one of our students is amazing. It’s about finding that spark and helping them believe in themselves.”
“Having someone who believes in you is so important”
One of Future 5’s core offerings is its College Prep program, which runs year-round with monthly workshops for high school juniors and weekly workshops for seniors. The program matches students with coaches who work one-on-one with them to execute a comprehensive college entry plan, from getting into a school to making sure their education package is financially affordable.
Throughout his senior year of high school, Lopez met weekly with his coach. They discussed what studies and career field he wanted to pursue, and what schools could help him achieve his plan. With his coach’s guidance, Lopez filled out a common application for a group of colleges and worked on additional applications and essays for scholarship funding. Along the way, he received reminders and guidance to stay on track with his final year of high school.
“I was lucky to have a great coach,” says Lopez. “I got support every step of the way.”
Though he was working at the time, Lopez also took the opportunity to go through Future 5’s Job Prep workshops, aiming to boost his experience and learn more about the fundamentals of interviewing.
The Job Prep program helps students build soft skills that increase employability, such as confidence, accountability, and professional oral and written communication. Participants also practice mock interviews and engage in career exploration such as job shadowing and internships with Stamford business partners or the Mayor’s Youth Employment program.
“The impact of having this experience to build their resumés is massive, because this demographic doesn’t get as much support and networking access as more affluent peers,” notes Dewey.
Future 5 also has a Community Service program that helps students succeed on multiple levels, building both their confidence and their resumés.
“It’s a very powerful part of our program,” explains Dewey. “It’s important for scholarships, and it shows the talents of our students and helps them see the skill set they have and how they can use it to influence the community.”
Clearly, the Future 5 approach is working. Today, Lopez is working both as an iOS Engineer intern for Synchrony, and as a software development consultant for a startup company. He’s also enrolled as a junior at UConn-Stamford, where he has one year left to complete his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. After graduation, he plans to dive into the workforce and has also begun looking at Master’s programs in software engineering to increase his skills and career prospects.
Looking back, Lopez says working one-on-one with a coach was the most valuable part of his Future 5 experience – and not just because it helped him understand the nuts and bolts of getting into college.
“My parents are extremely supportive, and that will never go away,” says Lopez. “But having that additional support system behind you, someone who believes in you and everything you do, made a big difference. My coach gave me so much confidence by telling me every week how impressed and proud he was of me. It was something that kept me going when times got tough.”
Building a network of support to help students succeed in college and the workforce
Future 5’s success and reach was founded upon building deep relationships at the high school level. Now, the organization is working to expand its impact even further by developing partnerships with post-secondary institutions, ensuring it can continue to help students succeed.
About a quarter to a third of Future 5’s participants go on to Norwalk Community College (NCC), where the organization now has a staff member onsite. That staff member currently supports 48 students with academic and career goals, from helping to identify required coursework and creating a plan to tackle it to guiding students in transferring to other institutions to complete a field of study.
“This partnership has been hugely transformational for our program,” says Dewey, noting that Future 5 is working to develop a similar relationship with UConn Stamford.
This staffing allows Future 5 to offer participants just entering college a friendly point person they can turn to for help in overcoming financial or academic challenges, direction on next steps to achieve their goals, or simply an inside scoop on tips to adjust to their college experience.
“It’s a complex transition from high school to college and providing help in that transition can be so powerful,” says Janeene Freeman, Director of Education and Youth Development at Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.
The Community Foundation has been instrumental in funding and championing this transitional approach, says Dewey. In fact, as an early supporter of Future 5, the Community Foundation has been a key player in the organization’s overall success, from awarding grants to help deliver programs and increase program enrollment to influencing the development of holistic approaches to help students succeed.
For Lopez, this commitment to creating relationships and providing ongoing support has paid off. He continues to check in with the Future 5 team monthly, and consults with Dewey and her colleague Lise Leist, Director of Post Secondary Pathways, before he makes decisions about school.
“They were there for me from the beginning, and I have a scholarship through Future 5, so I try to keep in touch with them,” says Lopez. “And whenever I get the chance, I volunteer and do what I can for them.”
He also remains connected to his College Prep coach, who is now his mentor, and continues to value the ongoing encouragement and listening ear.
“We still keep up, to this day,” says Lopez. “We are in touch monthly, or every other month.”
Future 5’s powerful network of support is fueled by the generous support of mentors from the business community, notes Dewey, and funding from
philanthropists who care about the future of Fairfield County.
“The more volunteer coaches we have, the more students we can connect to careers and services,” says Dewey. “And anyone who is able to help support financially can make an important impact, especially as the economic impacts of the coronavirus crises become clear over the next few weeks and months.”
As for Lopez, he wants to spread the message that Future 5 is an amazing resource for students who are willing to step beyond their comfort zone and put in the work to achieve their dreams.
“If you’re looking to get on the right path or need help with literally anything, Future 5 is there for you,” says Lopez, recalling that when his dad lost his job a few years ago, Future 5 helped him create a new resumé.
“At Future 5, you become a family,” he says. “The students and staff are very close. It truly is a great support system for anyone looking for this kind of help and family.”
This rich network of support is important both because it changes the lives of students, and because it is creating a stronger future for Fairfield County. By providing students with tools to rise above socioeconomic disadvantages, says Dewey, Future 5 supporters and partners are making a positive and powerful impact on the entire community.
“It means we are not leaving great talent behind,” she says. “These are amazing kids, and they have tremendous capacity. If we can help them succeed, we can all raise the bar for what our future looks like. We all benefit.”
Want to get involved? Learn more about volunteering, becoming a corporate partner or donating to Future 5. Or support Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Thrive by 25 initiative by making a tax-deductible donation to our Community Impact Fund.