In a sense, Hannah Gorin, a nursing major in her senior year at Marquette University in Wisconsin, is back where she was four years ago — on a life-altering deadline. Currently, the 21-year-old spends a lot of her time pouring over the details of applications; this time, however, instead of college, the time-sensitive documents are keys to a career. 

“I have an application for a nursing job that opens on Friday, so I’m definitely on a timeline right now,” she said during an interview in February. “I’m mostly looking for jobs in pediatric nurse residency programs.”

Gorin, a graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School, said that the executive functioning skills she developed at her alma mater — the ability to initiate tasks, to organize her responsibilities and her time, to plan and prioritize, and to evaluate her progress, among other critical skills — are particularly useful now as she heads into the workforce.  

Matt Kirkpatrick, the interim assistant principal for student learning at Oak Park and River Forest High School, said that the high school implemented its Academic Learning Program several years ago to provide students “who are capable of course content mastery, but need development” in critical life skills like self-management, self-awareness and responsible decision-making. 

“Lessons in all these areas with specific emphasis on how they relate to academic success help students unlock their potential to succeed in their current and future content based courses,” Kirkpatrick said. 

But for students, like Gorin, who succeed academically and still need to cultivate those executive functioning skills? The incubator comes in many forms — some more basic than others. 

 Gorin said that while she was at OPRF, she kept the habit of writing down all of her assignments in a notebook. She added that being active in extracurricular activities helped her develop the critical skills that she’s putting to work now in her job search. 

“I was a track-and-field athlete in high school and in college, so that definitely plays a role in my ability to be on top of the things I need to do,” she said. “Sports definitely helped me gain other life skills.” 

Melanie Weiss, the manager of the OPRFHS Scholarship Foundation, stressed the importance of the foundation’s rigorous application process as a tool for sharpening those executive functioning skills. 

“It’s important for students to understand that, in life, you have deadlines and obligations,” she said. Weiss said that each year the foundation gives out an average of $100,000 in partial academic scholarships to roughly 60 students. 

Gorin was a recipient of the scholarship, along with Jack Devitt, a 2015 graduate of OPRF who received the Patrick Luby Memorial Scholarship — one of roughly four dozen scholarships under the foundation’s umbrella. 

“As someone who tended to take a more relaxed approach to planning for school work, being forced to be schedule-oriented in order to receive the scholarship I was pursuing was challenging,” Devitt said. “The deadlines were really strict and I knew that I had to be on top of my game if I wanted to be selected.” 

Weiss said that one requirement for receiving a scholarship serves as a particularly effective tool for sharpening executive functioning skills.

“The students who receive scholarships have to write thank you notes,” she said. “It’s important that they know the value of writing thank you notes. It’s kind of a lost art, because it requires a lot of steps. You have to get the paper and envelope, mail it out. It’s not a text. People appreciate the extra effort.” 

Over the years, something of a consensus has formed among OPRF officials that in order to increase all students’ executive functioning skills — despite income level, race, gender and other factors — they have to be brought into spaces where students have to rise to high expectations and rigorous processes. 

The work is ongoing. In the meantime, individual students looking to responsibly navigate through high school, college and into careers might take some pointers from Gorin. 

Her advice? Take advantage of the support systems that exist and make a hobby out of keeping a to-do list and holding yourself to it. 

“We have a career services center at Marquette that help us with resumes and one of my instructors looked over mine and critiqued it,” she said. “I’d also say write down due dates, because then you can see them and know they’re coming up. But most importantly, make sure that whatever you’re applying yourself to is something you’re passionate about, because that will make it a lot easier for you to want to achieve your goal.”

SIDEBAR: Strategies for dealing with Executive Function Disorder

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY). 

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