Richard Cordova recalls asking himself in eighth grade, “What am I going to do with my life?” Decades later, Cordova, who is now the executive director of UW’s Internal Audit, is helping other eighth graders do the same, only with an even greater sense of direction and purpose.
For the last twelve years, Cordova has volunteered for CHOICES Education Group, an interactive live classroom workshop that empowers teens to make positive decisions about their education to increase their career and life opportunities.
Over the course of two days, trained CHOICES volunteers lead two 45-minute sessions that invite students to participate in “real-world” exercises that explore and contrast the consequences of dropping out of school with the benefits of educational attainment. Along the way, students have a chance to deepen and deploy skills for success such as self-discipline, decision-making, time management and goal-setting.
“CHOICES provides students with perspective that comes from the ability to hear a different voice of experience and learn from an individual who’s already been working,” Cordova says of the program, which reaches more than 200 eighth grade classrooms a year across King County and currently supports 60 program sites in 25 states with 860 business and community volunteers serving approximately 40,000 students a year.
“The purpose and goal,” Cordova says, “is to demonstrate how important it is to finish high school and how those decisions they’re going to make in what they do after high school are going to make a difference over their whole life.”
Every school day, 7,000 teens become high school dropouts. Each time a teen drops out, they face a lifetime of challenges and uncertainty, and also forfeits an estimated $260,000 in lifetime earnings compared to high school graduates.
Each 45-minute CHOICES classroom session consists of six to eight participatory activities structured at a length of five to ten minutes that allows students to conduct mock interviews, conceptualize earnings, manage household budgets, and make decisions about time management and self-discipline.
“You talk about how the decisions they make today will impact the future,” Cordova says. “We talk about the cost to the community if you’re not engaged.”
Cordova says that CHOICES programming is about “providing community values” as well as value to communities. His hope is that at least one activity over those two days of activities gets students to start thinking differently about their future, even if just for a few moments each day.
“For me, what keeps me coming back as a presenter is seeing the kids in a manner that finds them taking a step back and thinking about their life,” Cordova says. “Hopefully the one thing they take away is that it does really make a difference if I invest time in myself—because you are your own future.”
Mary Crivell, a nurse at UW Medicine, has been a CHOICES volunteer for the past four years. She decided to first get involved after realizing she wanted to give others what her own parents had given her: the space to consider what she wanted to do and be in life—and help in charting the course to achieving that.
“[Discussions like that are] just something I feel like is lacking in our communities,” she says. “This had been something I’d wanted to do for a long time.”
Crivell says she was at first apprehensive about engaging a whole classroom of students, but the more often she did it, the easier and more enjoyable it became.
“I told myself, just stretch yourself, get out there, do it, stretch yourself, show up,” she says, comparing the experience of volunteering with CHOICES to her efforts to change work culture while working as a managing nurse.
“When I was managing in radiation oncology, I had to change a culture. I wasn’t doing it alone, but together it was some of the most satisfying work I’ve done.”
Talking to students about possible paths to their goals is like going to the gym, she says—“you feel so good afterwards.”
“Students want to be adults, but might not be ready yet,” Crivell says. “But if you present the positives and invite them into being an adult and a chance to examine how they’re going to fit into this world, they’ll tend to go toward that.”
CHOICES visits middle schools across King County, giving volunteers the chance to get involved, give back, and make an impact in their own backyard. People from the business community and University employees are especially sought after as presenters, Cordova says.
“This is local, it’s in your community. You could volunteer at the middle school down your street. Just getting into the classroom is such a rush.”
By stepping through the door, presenters are able to show students a window to the future.
“The message is there’s lot of different things you can do; just make sure to finish high school, then identify what you’re interested in to do something beyond high school,” Cordova says. “You’re hopeful that that two days makes just a little bit of an impact, so that they think about what they might want to do a little bit longer.”
Crivell says the most surprising part is students’ willingness to be more engaged. In a recent study of at-risk students, those who participated in CHOICES increased their school engagement 47% more than those who did not, suggesting a correlation between participation in CHOICES and positive school engagement.
“The majority of these students really do listen,” she says. “I can see in real life kids’ reactions, how thoughtful and engaged they can be when you tell them they are worth it.”
You’re invited! CHOICES is currently welcoming new members to join our team of business and community volunteers to deliver the compelling CHOICES workshop in middle schools in your community.
Why would I do this? Being a CHOICES Presenter is very fulfilling – you are the messenger! The CHOICES materials and props lead you and the students right through the workshop. One presenter commented, “I wish this program was around when I was in school.” Who wouldn’t be pleased if a student told you afterward, “You really inspired me!”? You can help us address the high school dropout epidemic and turn a teen around today!
What’s the annual commitment? Three workshops, ten hours – and a caring heart. You’ll take our two hour online training. We’ll then provide the materials you’ll need and will schedule you to co-present two 45-minute sessions in local middle schools over a two-day period, three times during the school year – that’s 90 students! You’ll need to take some time off from work during the school day, but it’s well worth it for the sake of teens!
How do I sign up? Contact Leo Muller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206.246.4237 for more information and to learn how you can become a volunteer CHOICES Presenter.
To learn more and to bring CHOICES to teens in your community, please call 1-206-CHOICES or visit www.choices.org.