Four months ago, Jordan wasn’t sure how to turn his interest in video production into a real job. Now, as a newly minted graduate of the Perkins Pre-Employment Program (PEP), the 18-year-old has the skills and confidence to begin working toward the career he wants.
On Saturday, Jordan and 12 other young adults with visual impairment celebrated the successful conclusion of the 10-week workshop that prepared students ages 15 to 22 for the world of work. Friends and family members snapped photos and cheered loudly as each student collected a PEP certificate and leather portfolio – the latter intended for use in future job interviews.
After the ceremony, Jordan’s mother Seana reflected on how the program changed her son, who commuted independently from his hometown in Maine to each weekly session at Perkins School for the Blind’s campus in Watertown, Massachusetts.
“He seemed to get more confident as the program went on,” she said. “He’s definitely more organized and he’s advocating for himself – that’s probably the biggest change I’ve seen.”
For 10 Saturdays, while most teenagers were sleeping in, Jordan and his PEP classmates were writing resumes and cover letters, participating in mock interviews and getting tips on effective networking. They learned how to search for jobs, how to create an online profile, and when and how to disclose their disability to potential employers.
They also spent time discussing their skills and interests, and learning about potential career paths. This step is especially important for students with visual impairment who don’t have the same easy access to entry-level jobs as sighted teenagers, said Teri Turgeon, director of Community Programs at Perkins.
“The course allowed young adults to think about what’s possible, what they’re good at and what opportunities are out there for them,” she said. “Kids who are sighted get this very naturally, but our students need it in a much more concrete, experiential format.”
The PEP curriculum zeroed in on skills that many students with visual impairment need to practice – like shaking hands, facing the correct person during an interview and dressing professionally. These are the types of skills that Harry, 16, isn’t taught at his high school in Wellesley, where his classmates are sighted. The program filled in those gaps, said Harry’s father, Kevin.
“He has a great foundation now to jump into the work world,” he said. “Everything from showing up on time to working with coworkers and just some of the basics, like what you need to wear. It was important for Harry to learn all of that.”
The program gave Harry the confidence to begin applying for summer jobs, with the long-term goal of applying to college to study psychology. As one of the youngest PEP participants, Harry was able to learn from older students with employment experience under their belts.
“I honestly wasn’t really sure what to expect (but) I really loved it,” he said. “I got a lot out of it. It was a great use of my Saturdays.”
The program was facilitated by Perkins educators Kate Katulak and Jessica Erlich, who designed the curriculum with Karen Wolffe, an international expert on career counseling for people who are blind or visually impaired. They created the program – the first of its kind at Perkins – after watching students with visual impairment struggle to get their foot in the door at jobs for which they were qualified.
“Looking for work is often harder than working,” said Wolffe. “But knowing how to find jobs and convince employers that you’re able to do the work tasks they need doing can make the job-search process manageable.”
All 13 graduates left the program with a personalized action plan outlining next steps and a list of specific skills to continue working on. PEP instructors will check in with each student for the next six months, Turgeon said, helping them turn their lessons into action.
“They now have the framework and the foundational understanding about how to make work a reality,” she said. “Our hope is that every single one of these young adults leaves this program and experiences the world differently.”
The next Pre-Employment Program is scheduled to begin January 2017.