Nick Michalek always knew he wanted to work with cars. After graduating high school, he enrolled in the automotive service technology program at the College of DuPage en route to an associate’s degree and worked in different auto shops. Michalek wanted to put the skills he learned inside the classroom to use in the real world.

“Having the ability to work in my trade as I was learning my trade was really helpful,” said Michalek, who hunkered down on his passion and later became an automotive teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

This, Michalek said, was the start of his career, a journey that may look different from the traditional “go to a four-year college” track that many educators have long pushed for and a story he hopes to share with more students at the upcoming ‘My Future, My Pathway’ event on April 14 at OPRF. The inaugural event, which takes place from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., is open to all OPRF students and geared toward helping them discover various courses such as Michalek’s automotive class offered at the school or through partnering organizations.

Julie Lam, director of student learning at OPRF and event organizer, likened ‘My Future, My Pathway’ to a conference for students. Lam credited the idea to Kristin McKee, the school’s learning analytics coordinator, and Sarah Wurster, a post-secondary pathways coordinator. The two, Lam said, wanted to do something for students around standardized testing days.

This week, freshmen, sophomores and juniors will be taking a variety of state-mandated tests, including the PSAT 8/9 and the SATs. On those days, seniors are given a nonattendance day, which they can use for a college visit, Lam said.

But McKee, Wurster and Lam thought further and asked themselves: “What could we do for the other students on that day?”

That’s when they came up with ‘My Future, My Pathway.’ Lam told Wednesday Journal the high school has more than a dozen programs of study, allowing students the chance to grab onto career training opportunities, explore jobs in trades and more. Students this Thursday will be able to meet with faculty and staff who teach courses in audio engineering, hospitality and culinary arts and woodworking just to name a few, Lam said.

“We talk a lot as educators about the achievement gap, but I don’t think we can solve anything with the achievement gap if we don’t focus and address the opportunity gap because some of our students might have access to explore a lot of these different types of options, but some of our students don’t,” she said.

“It’s important for our students to have exposure and learn about some of these courses,” Lam said, hoping students will be encouraged to sign up for the course or elective.

Representatives from other schools and organizations will also be at the event to talk with students about their internships and programs. For example, Lam said, officers from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) will be hosting a virtual session to tell students about the agency’s high school ambassador program and dispel myths about the organization.

“They hire people who are computer scientists. They hire people who are in human resources,” Lam said about the CIA’s many branches.

Representatives from Argonne National Laboratory, Triton College, Ms. Robert’s Beauty Academy, Southwest Airlines and the Oak Park Area Association of Realtors are among dozens also billed to attend the event.

For Lee Williams, a transition specialist at OPRF who works with students to plan their lives after high school, his take on the Thursday event is that it’s meant to serve as a day of exploration.

Williams, who plans on presenting about community college, said he wants students to know they have the choice, and they should allow their values to drive their choices. Williams told the Journal that he often hears from students and families that attending community college is an “easier” alternative than attending a four-year university – that community college is an extension of high school.

“We let students know that what you learn in a community college setting is similar or comparable to anyone that will move into a four-year college or university setting. However, you’re learning skills locally here at home,” Lee said, adding community college should be viewed as a “value-driven experience” as it meets the students’ needs.

Echoing some of Williams’ sentiments, Lam summed up what ‘My Future, My Pathway’ is all about.

“It’s a day that celebrates their voices and their interest,” she said.

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