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How One National Nonprofit is Inspiring Students to Think Big

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Jenna Teschel, the Regional Program Manager at Think Big for Kids. Read on to hear about how Jenna and her team are unlocking a world of possibilities, providing invaluable guidance, and fostering the growth of countless students across the country.

Photo Courtesy of Jenna Teschel / Think Big for Kids

Tell us a little bit about Think Big for Kids–what kind of opportunities do you offer to young people and why?

Jenna Teschel: Sure! We are a national nonprofit dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty by preparing kids to excel in today's workforce. We offer a unique three pillars approach that incorporates career exploration, mentorship, and job readiness and placement. Our programmatic roadmap engages kids during those critical middle school years and then continues to support them throughout high school and into young adulthood.

During the program, students learn about career opportunities and they work with experienced mentors to pursue both their educational and professional goals. And then as they approach graduation, we offer them work placement, internships, and scholarships, helping them pursue whatever their goals are, whether that's on-the-job training, trade school certification, or a 2 to 4-year college degree. And then, to further our mission to break the cycle of poverty, we work with our partners to connect graduates to jobs that they're passionate about after completing graduation.

That’s great! One thing I admire the work y’all are doing is that it inspires students to expand their understanding of what’s possible for them. You have plenty of alumni who go on to pursue all kinds of different careers. How does Think Big help students realize their potential across so many different fields?

Well, I love what you just said about encouraging students to think bigger and see what opportunities are available to them. To that end, we're strategic about ensuring that we have a really wide variety of industries represented during our career showcases, exposing kids to a diverse array of careers and industries.

And then through our mentorship program, we aim to pair students with a mentor who is working in or has experience in the field of study that they might be interested in. So in addition to providing overall encouragement and guidance to our students, our mentors are instrumental in helping students connect to their potential areas of interest.

Photo Courtesy of Jenna Teschel / Think Big for Kids

That’s so important–and I’m sure the mentors are often people that underserved students wouldn’t have crossed paths with if not for the program. I imagine it really redefines what’s possible for them.

Exactly! As an example, let’s say a law firm comes in and talks to students–right away, there are going to be students who initially don’t see the relevance, students who think, “Well, I don't want to be a lawyer. That's not my thing.”

But pretty quickly they start to realize that a large law firm isn’t just full of lawyers: they have a marketing team, they have human resources, they have paralegals. There are a million different ways to engage with an industry that they may not have considered. Seeing them make that connection is really exciting.

Think Big has expanded dramatically since it first began in Tampa City. How do the challenges that young people face differ from city to city?

Right now, we’re in Tampa, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and New Jersey, and we’re working towards increasing our footprint even more this year. And while each market comes with its own unique challenges and struggles, we’ve found that kids living either at or below the poverty line face really similar challenges and really similar benefits from our program, no matter the city. Things like career exposure, mentorship, support, guidance, and professional resources are things that make a huge difference in these students’ lives, and it’s rare that they have access to them without additional support.

That makes sense, and Think Big is introducing these students to these kinds of tools, some of which they probably would never have gotten to access otherwise.

Exactly. You've never heard of the tool, and you've never been invited to learn more about them. And so that’s where we come in and bridge that gap.

If you could choose one Think Big program that every high school student could access, which would it be and why?

I think if we're talking about high school students, I would love to see all high school students have access to our mentorship program. In addition to providing the kind of career advic, perspective and connections we talked about earlier, it’s just so important for kids to feel supported, to have someone who cares about them and is ultimately in their corner. I think if I had to pick one aspect of our program for high schoolers, I wish that all kids had access to that.

Having someone on your side like that is invaluable.

It is. And it’s not just about having someone to believe in you! It’s also important to have someone who sets expectations for you, who expects you to succeed and inspires you to rise to the occasion. That's really powerful too.

How have you seen students pay what they learned with Think Big forward?

Some of our earliest our first students are now in college or they're just starting their careers and a lot of them have remained engaged with our organization, coming back to speak with kids currently in our program. They share their experiences, give advice, and help motivate and inspire our current kids. I personally think that nothing resonates better with our kids than hearing from someone who has actually been in their shoes and shared many of the same struggles. So I always think it's so special when we get to see some of our very first think big students coming back and having an impact like that on our current generation of kids.

I’m sure that’s very inspiring to the students, especially coming from people who are only a little bit further along than them!

There's really no substitution for that kind of impact.

Alright. Final question. I know Think Big has set an impressive goal to impact 10,000 students’ lives by 2025. What’s on the horizon for the organization? What’s in store for Think Big this year and next?

We're expanding our reach in many of our markets. We’re expanding our work in Tampa and connecting with more and more likeminded organizations, increasing the number of kids in our program this year (as well as planning for next year!). We actually awarded a record number of scholarships this past spring: 38 total!

I’m also excited to say that we'll be launching programming in the Greater Washington DC area this fall, starting in Fairfax County and expanding from there. Those plans are in motion: we’re already planning the programs and starting to build out the schedule for the fall.

That’s really incredible–what an exciting new chapter for you all. Jenna, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today!

Thanks for having me!

Photo Courtesy of Jenna Teschel / Think Big for Kids