Education | Employment

Never think it’s too late for you

Stories of Thriving from across North Carolina

Abigail Holdsclaw, ncIMPACT Research Associate

November 2, 2022

Stories of Thriving Across North Carolina

When seeking to improve or address an issue, it’s critical to understand the associated challenges and barriers. In a previous blog post, we described challenges for Opportunity Youth, young people aged 16-24 who are not in school or working, who are the focus of Carolina Across 100’s first program called Our State, Our Work (OSOW). It is equally important, however, to learn from what works and to uplift those success stories in order to replicate and adapt effective strategies and multiply positive outcomes.

Last month, representatives from OSOW gathered for a two-day learning forum at the UNC School of Government. Before arriving in Chapel Hill, the OSOW teams were asked to create a short video capturing the story of a young adult who either is or was at high risk for becoming an Opportunity Youth. We called these videos “Stories of Thriving.”

These stories allowed teams to center the voice of a young person in their community who had defied the odds. They were personal and powerful accounts of experiences in each young person’s own words. Their stories stood as a testament to the trusting relationships the community organizations that are part of OSOW’s community teams have formed with people in their programs.

They also prompted teams to identify the supports that led to success for these individuals and to consider ways to provide more young people with such resources. The stories were our first attempt to have teams learn directly from the very population they hope to support.

We are deeply grateful to those who shared their journey with us. Our hope is that, alongside our community teams, we can take these individual “stories of thriving” and create systems-level programming across the state that creates accessible on-ramps to education and employment. This blog documents some of what we have learned so far about how to do that.

Student Voices

Thriving in the face of adversity

Young adulthood is a formative phase of life. During this time, people typically create a foundation for adulthood that can shape their overall life trajectory. It often includes multiple transitions, juggling significant new responsibilities, and sometimes gaining acute awareness of the ways that racism and discrimination can obstruct the ability to thrive. All of that was reflected in these stories.

Many stories included talk of the balance required to care for children and elder family members while also pursuing their education and working. Many shared that at school or work, they face discrimination due to their race, ethnicity, economic class, or academic performance. Some also faced challenges to achieving their career goals due to language barriers, disability, and/or previous involvement with the justice system.

Despite all this, they were motivated to persist by the need to provide for their families, wanting a better future with more opportunities for themselves, and believing that in the long run, their hard work would be worth it.

The Assets (what supports were vital to their success?)

As we listened to these stories and heard these young adults describe the resources and supports that were critical to their success, three themes emerged.

1. Clear onramps to employment

To aid these young adults’ success, it was important that they have opportunities for stable employment after earning a credential, such as a passing the General Education Development Test (GED). Most of the youth are now involved in the skilled trades, earning stable and fulfilling employment after completing their GED, an apprenticeship program, or participating in programs offered as a part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

2. Mentors make a difference

Every single youth expressed that a mentor, teacher, or other advocate was crucial to their success. These individuals not only provide irreplaceable encouragement and personal connections to the youth, but also help them navigate education, the workplace, and other systems.

3. Financial support is critical

Every single young person shared that financial supports aided their educational and occupational successes. These supports included debt-free certification programs, assistance purchasing supplies, transportation, and being compensated while completing their internships.

The Opportunity

These youth have overcome extraordinary challenges on their journeys. But after accomplishing significant educational and career milestones, they’re only getting started. Earning a degree, credential, or certification, becoming skilled in a new trade, and earning employment showed these youth what they’re capable of. And it made them want even more for themselves. Many expressed a strong desire to pursue further education, share their story to inspire others, start programs like those that helped them in their communities, and be successful, self-employed business owners.

In their own words

When thinking about the advice they would give others who are thinking about returning to school or entering a new career, the youth shared encouraging statements such as…

“Find what’s best for you, only you can figure that out.”

“It’s never too late for you.”

The tools and supports discussed here can help youth achieve their goals in powerful and inspiring ways so that they can chart their own course. We need to give them the opportunities to discover their strengths and passions so they are empowered to find the path that’s best for them in ways that only they can, no matter how many turns their path takes.

We know that working with the incredible community teams in the “Our State, Our Work” program will result in so many more stories like these.

Learn more here and stay connected with our work.