Junior Achievement: Middle School Students Map Their Futures

As I walked into Lakeview Middle School (LMS) I was a greeted by a confident young lady. When did fourteen year-olds become so mature? Melissa McMillian, now a freshman at Southside High School, had returned to her old stomping grounds to share her story with me. It was obvious as I watched her interact with teachers and administrators, alike, she was an engaging student who had left her mark on the school community. She received lots of hugs and kind words as we stood in front of a colorful mural that adorned the main hall.

The mural’s bold design includes a massive tree that reaches across the cinderblock surface with its orange and gold leaves and deep supportive root structure. Central to the work are three figures, presumably LMS students, who are surrounded by a seemingly simple question – “What path will you choose?”

This dramatic display offers passersby a pause for thought and reflection thanks to Melissa. She created this unique work of art as a gift for future generations of students, parents and teachers. As we stood in front of the mural she explained her inspiration was participating in the pilot program of Junior Achievement’s “JA It’s My Future”.

This award-wining program provides middle school students with practical information about preparing for the working world. Over the next three years “JA It’s My Future” will be offered at all 20 middle schools in Greenville County – reaching more than 5000 students annually. Greenville County Schools and Junior Achievement (JA) of Upstate South Carolina are partnering to ensure that all middle school students have the knowledge and skills to obtain a good job and maintain their financial well-being throughout adulthood.

The six-session curriculum offers students an opportunity to explore 16 career clusters with special emphasis on high-growth careers like advanced manufacturing. As in all JA programs, the “teachers” of this course are volunteers from the business community whose voices of experience bring the programs to life.  Ultimately more than 300 local volunteers will be needed each year to implement “JA It’s My Future.”

During the program, students, like Melissa, create personal maps to illustrate how their life experiences and academic choices can impact their future career path. “Our hope is that “JA It’s My Future” will be an additional instrument for counselors, educators, parents and students to make informed choices in high school,” shared Connie Lanzl, president of Junior Achievement of Upstate South Carolina.

In Melissa’s case, she always knew that she loved art. And when she started at LMS in seventh grade she was encouraged by her art teacher, Ms. DeJong. This support along with participating in “JA It’s My Future” gave her the confidence to consider her future as an artist.

“The JA volunteer teachers, Ty and Justin, were so encouraging and nonjudgmental when I shared my career goals with them,” explained Melissa.

As we continued our conversation, Melissa explained the various concepts she was exposed to during the JA program. As you might imagine, she particularly enjoyed the first session, which focused on creating your own brand. During this session students discussed how the choices they make in middle school can help build the foundation for a strong personal brand for the future.

One of the keys to the success of this and other JA programs is the inclusion of interactive activities.  “JA It’s My Future” introduces the basics of job-hunting through a scavenger hunt. By participating, students become aware of basic tools such as applications, resumes, recommendations and interviewing while having lots of fun.

When I asked Melissa to share the overall value of the program, she immediately told me a story about a student in her JA class. She described this individual as disruptive and one who generally performed poorly in school. Sometime after the first class she began noticing him paying attention to the JA volunteer teachers. She asked him why. And he told her that he realized that he needed to change. “JA It’s My Future” truly made a difference in this boy’s life, he knew that his future was dependent on it!” said Melissa.

Melissa McMillian is on her way to a career as an artist. As she makes plans for her future, she leaves a legacy behind at LMS. Her inspiring mural asks an important question of all students who walk the school’s halls – “What path will you choose?” – through her art Melissa offers all of them the power to pursue their own dreams.

For information about volunteering for Junior Achievement of Upstate South Carolina visit www.jaupstatesc.org or call 864-244-4017.

Debbie Nelson

Debbie Nelson is the president and founder of DNA Creative Communications, a woman-owned public relations and inspirational marketing firm for nonprofit organizations. Under Debbie’s leadership, in 2010 DNA founded Shine the Light Nonprofit Forums, an annual training program for Greenville nonprofits in partnership with the Community Foundation of Greenville County, the United Way of Greenville County and the Hollingsworth Funds. To support other nonprofits across the state, she also manages education programs for the South Carolina Association of Nonprofit Organization. As an a advocate for the nonprofit community, each month Debbie shares nonprofit stories in her Shine the Light columns in the Greenville Business Magazine and the Columbia Business Monthly. In addition she teaches nonprofit marketing at Clemson University to inspire and develop future nonprofit leaders. Debbie is a graduate of Leadership Greenville, Leadership South Carolina and the Riley Institute’s Diversity Leadership Initiative. She currently serves on the boards of the Greenville Area Development Corporation, the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, the United Way of Greenville County and the United Way Association of South Carolina.

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