College is a big experience, no matter who you are.
But for students from low-income backgrounds, who are often also first-generation college goers, college can feel especially weighty—as it’s essential to launch and grow a successful career.
Career success is about far more than good grades. It also hinges on what students dooutside of the classroom, including extracurricular activities, internships, and more. Too often, students from disadvantaged backgrounds lack access to the “extras,” making success beyond college even harder.
Enter Braven, a nonprofit organization (founded by EP Board Member Aimée Eubanks Davis) that identifies next-generation leaders from underrepresented backgrounds and gives them a leg up on gaining skills and real-world experiences that will enable them to become influential leaders.
As a volunteer leadership coach with Braven, I had the privilege of working with talented undergrads who were eager to make their mark on the world. These students told courageous stories of what it was like to navigate college on their own.
The challenges they faced daily were intangible and immeasurable: Like going to campus and not seeing people who looked like them. Like going to student activities fairs and being unfamiliar with all of the activities (while everyone else knew what was going on). Like dealing with assumptions from peers and teachers about taking vacations, owning cars, or other experiences that weren’t a part of their lives.
College is an important launch point for many young leaders, yet adjusting to the unfamiliarity of the environment and navigating its complexities also mean that these bright, ambitious young people need a high degree of support to excel in higher education and beyond. Trouble is, these support systems are not always readily available or visible to students. Without critical support, vulnerable students struggle and fade out of the system, or fail to see themselves as effective leaders.
As a result, so much potential is squandered. But Braven refuses to accept this status quo. Believing that the next generation of leaders will emerge from everywhere—every race, gender, religion, geography, income level and otherwise—Braven is creating a movement to capture and realize this lost potential.
After thorough research and two years of pilot programs, Davis and her team created a model to solve the education-to-employment gap and identify leaders from underrepresented backgrounds. They named it Braven, to reflect the resilience of their Fellows and the strong community they form together.
During the semester-long program, Braven Fellows participate in both in-person workshops and online learning and learn hard and soft skills to succeed as professionals, receive coaching to achieve personal and professional goals, and grow a network of peers, mentors, and thought-leaders. As part of the program, Braven Fellows share their “story of self,” set near-term professional goals, develop project management and communication skills, and polish application materials for summer internships.
The Braven program capitalizes on two innovative approaches to group learning and collaboration. First, the program harnesses online education software and social media to connect the cohort and enable them to complete learning modules in between group sessions. All assignments are highly interactive and require students to use new knowledge to solve real-world situations.
Secondly, and most importantly, the Braven program emphasizes the importance of relationships and brings Fellows together in person many times. Community is a key element of individual and collective success. Many Fellows shared that they felt like the only low-income, first generation student on their campus, which made them feel isolated. But in the Braven community, Fellows shared their experiences with each other to build their confidence and trust, and hear that they were far from alone.
As a group we acknowledged the critical role that mentors and allies play in our lives and careers, and held ourselves accountable for creating a supportive and inspiring community from which to help launch our futures.
Weekend convenings offered time to reflect on impactful experiences and work collaboratively, and “learning labs” featured small groups of students taking a deep dive into the program’s curriculum with coaches and staff. In one session, students struggled through a tough survival simulation to learn that when no single person can succeed, the collective intelligence and resourcefulness of the group will find a way to prevail.
As part of the program, students applied for summer opportunities with high-profile companies after completing a series of mock interviews with Braven partners. Through Braven, Fellows gained personal connections to companies like Facebook, Teach For America, and Google—connections that many people with low-income backgrounds may not have or know how to make. Additionally, with the program’s interview preparation, Braven applicants applied for summer internships in an expedited process.
As a capstone project, the Braven students I coached applied design thinking concepts to develop a product addressing the diversity gap in the technology industry. After months of researching the topic, defining a problem, and vetting solutions, the Fellows presented their final product to a panel of human resource and diversity executives looking for ideas to bring back to their employers. A perfect capstone to the program, the event showed everyone in the room what can happen when human potential is unleashed through education and empowerment.
Throughout the program, the students’ energy and ability was truly something to behold. Witnessing tomorrow’s leaders develop in real-time isn’t something you see every day, but at Braven, that’s what it’s all about.
This school year Braven is running its leadership and career accelerator in partnership with San José State University (as a credit-bearing course) and Rutgers University – Newark. To learn more, become a Fellow, or apply to become a volunteer leadership coach, visit www.bebraven.org.
By Alex Hemmer
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