Nurturing the workforce: City program helps local students target college, careers

COLLEGE BOUND: High School students in the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy, pictured, are given access to summer internships, leadership opportunities and more to help prepare them for future employment. Photo courtesy of Erika Germer Photo courtesy of Erika Germer

When Raekwon Griffin enrolls at Morehouse next fall, he’ll become the first member of his family to attend college. The Asheville High senior credits the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy with helping him get there.

CAYLA gives high school students summer internships, community service and leadership opportunities, and real-world experiences that bolster their résumés. To date, every one of its more than 140 participants has gone on to college, and “Close to 80 percent are still in college or have already completed their degree,” program coordinator Erika Germer reports. Nationally, she notes, less than 20 percent of first generation college students complete their course of study.

CAYLA, says Griffin, “has been extremely helpful in figuring out my plans after high school.” The organization, he continues, “helps students find their career interest, develop professionalism and give back to the community, all through their internship.”

City Council established the program in 2007, aiming to nurture local high schoolers professionally in hopes that they’ll eventually return to bolster Asheville’s workforce.

“During their internships, CAYLA students are placed into an adult-centric world, where they encounter, often for the first time, the hidden norms of the workplace: punctuality, open communication with supervisors, follow-through on real projects,” Germer explains. “By learning how to meet these expectations, students are well-prepared for future employment.”

Recent UNC Asheville graduate Gio Figaro says his involvement with CAYLA helped lay the groundwork for his current career. “Networking through the program opened up an internship opportunity in the city’s Finance Department that helped me obtain the job I have right now,” says Figaro, who now works as an accounting technician at his alma mater. “Most college students don’t have three years of actual working experience under their belt as soon as they leave college, but this internship afforded me that opportunity.”

After graduating from East Carolina University, fellow CAYLA alum Anice Smith returned to the mountains. She now works as a rehabilitation technician at Care Partners and a fitness associate at the YWCA of Asheville. “The biggest impression CAYLA left on me is the amount of support from people in the community,” she says. “It’s amazing that some people still remember me from my summer internships. I was able to obtain summer jobs with Parks & Recreation during my summer breaks from college because of the people I met during CAYLA. It’s great to have so many people in your corner to support and motivate you.”

A no-brainer for businesses

About 20 Asheville-area businesses provide internships for the students in such sectors as health care, hospitality, technology and nonprofits. JB Media Group founder Justin Belleme says providing internships was a no-brainer for his company. “While in high school, I had several really amazing internship opportunities that helped me choose my career path and establish mentor relationships that were helpful in my college application process as references,” he reveals. Those experiences also enabled him to “build a résumé in high school, which helped with my confidence and college application and scholarship process.”

Alex Mitchiner echoes those sentiments. “CAYLA put me in the right direction,” she says. “I never would have interned at any of the law firms or the district attorney’s office if I hadn’t been in that program, making those strong connections.” After graduation, the Western Carolina University senior plans to attend law school.

Those internships and the contacts they provide also give students additional incentives to return home. CAYLA alum Brianna Rock, a senior at Berea College in Kentucky, says: “I’ve received possible job offers within Asheville. CAYLA has given me a reason to come back to Asheville: It has opened my eyes to opportunities in this area.” Her homecoming may not happen immediately, however: Rock says she wants to go on to medical school after she graduates.

But the benefits of CAYLA aren’t limited to its student participants: Since 2007, the organization has provided about 3,000 hours of local community service. Those opportunities, says Smith, gave her a different perspective on the city. “I was able to feed the homeless, pick up litter off the streets and rivers, pack up boxes at MANNA FoodBank, mentor young children and a lot more. I would not have got a chance to get out and explore Asheville without the program. I learned a lot about the city I’ve grown up in through my experiences with CAYLA.”

Scholarships and more

CAYLA also addresses other aspects of these students’ lives. “Every Friday during the summer, the entire class convenes for daylong workshops on a variety of experiential topics, such as understanding the link between emotions and spending, and the advantages of teamwork versus independence in completing a task,” Germer explains. Those lessons, she says, help students make key decisions like taking on debt to pursue a degree.

While vocational school is an option with less financial obligation, CAYLA alum are interested in the experiential lessons provided by traditional college.

“Going to college is definitely more important,” maintains CAYLA alum Jahni Gilliland, who’s now attending Western Carolina. “You’re getting more than just knowledge for your career of choice: You’re gaining more knowledge about the world and the people around you, things simple job training won’t be able to offer.”

But that doesn’t mean cost isn’t a concern.

“The economics of attending a traditional college didn’t keep me from pursuing that course,” says Figaro. “However, it did make me focus heavily on obtaining scholarships and choosing a public school instead of a private school.”

Making college affordable is also a priority for CAYLA. Besides helping students research and apply for scholarships, the program awards each graduate $2,000.

Last year, notes Germer, the total value of merit-based scholarships awarded to CAYLA students since 2008 surpassed $1 million. “Due to their diligence in writing scholarship essays, the most fortunate CAYLA students are attending college without any student loans.”

And despite fiscal constraints, City Council remains committed to supporting CAYLA’s mission. In the current fiscal year, the program’s $120,000 budget was mostly covered by Asheville ($97,000), with Buncombe County providing the rest. CAYLA has also received grant funding in the past. In addition to the cash awards, “The budget covers the 25 students’ summer wages, insurance, materials and field trips,” says Germer.

Not surprisingly, claiming one of those 25 slots is becoming increasingly competitive. In March, ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders at Asheville High complete paperwork, submit essays, provide recommendations and get interviewed by a panel of CAYLA representatives. But for those who make the cut, it’s well worth the effort.

“I’ve had so many great opportunities throughout my high school career thanks to CAYLA,” notes Griffin. “I had the opportunity to be a guest on a local radio show to speak about health awareness, as well as being able to be interviewed about my desire to provide equal opportunities for colored people by promoting social justice and civil rights.”

For more information about applying to CAYLA or providing internship opportunities, contact Erika Germer at egermer@ashevillenc.gov.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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