Straight to college is not the only path

Welding, automotive and the military were best options for these OPRF grads

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

When he graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1987, Devin Pepper recalls "Oak Park was one of those towns where everyone goes right to college and then figures it out."  He wanted to be a commercial pilot and instead enrolled in vocational classes at Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa. During his first sequence of classes focused on aircraft mechanics, he determined that path was not for him. He returned home and took some classes at Triton before he met with an Air Force recruiter.

He wanted to see the world, so he enlisted, thinking he might do a tour with Desert Storm and move on from the military. Over 29 years later, he's now Colonel Devin Pepper, commander of the 21st Operations Group, 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base Colorado.

He eventually finished college and officers' training school and earned two Masters degrees, and says his long military career is quite the accomplishment given that the military wasn't even on his radar in high school. He says, "When I was in Oak Park, military service just wasn't talked about. I never would have thought I'd be in the military service when I was in high school."

The gap between high school and enlisting gave him perspective, and he thinks that remains a valuable tool for many. "You can take some time to think or travel and figure out what you want to do. Find yourself and be useful without getting thousands of dollars in debt."

Peter Hostrawser founded Disrupt Education after working over 14 years at OPRF. Now at Glenbard East High School, he says that his years in high schools have shown him that a lot of students are disengaged with the education process and heading to college but not staying there long. He says the two biggest reasons kids drop out of college are financial and not feeling as if they are working towards something they're interested in. He's interviewed over 80 students and wants to improve the post-secondary success of kids by helping them identify their passions through networking, job shadowing and mentoring programs. He's in Oak Park Thursday evenings from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Oak Park's Main Library, working with local students to help them learn more about how they can set themselves up on the right path.

Recent graduate Tom Herner is living the advice to follow your passion rather than blindly moving on to college after high school. As a freshman, he told his OPRF counselor that college was not for him and that he wanted to be a professional welder. He recalls his counselor "almost dropped to the floor."

Herner took a few welding classes with his cabinet-maker father and then started working on his own after graduating in 2017. Today, he works for his father's business and is adding his forged hardware to certain pieces.

Ezra Israelsohn graduated from OPRF in 2012. While at the school he enrolled in Nicholas Michalek's automotive courses when he was looking for a schedule filler. It ended up setting him on the road to a career in automotive technology.

"Before auto class at OPRF, I didn't know what I wanted to do after graduation. I knew college was there, but I wasn't really racing for it."

Although he was the first in his extended family not to go to a four-year college, Israelsohn notes that his parents were very supportive. He enrolled in WyoTech's nine-month vocational program and within 48 hours of graduation had a job offer in hand. He credits Michalek with bringing in people to talk about the field. "When I was in high school, most people really didn't talk about the trades. You can get really good jobs that don't require four years of education after high school."

Greg Johnson, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at OPRF, agrees that is time to do away with the stigma that vocational education is lesser than. "That's the old way of thinking. This can be for all of our students. We're thinking about how we serve our population as a whole."

Johnson points to programs like Project Lead the Way, which offers students dual credit courses in engineering as well as similar programs in automotive work and woodworking as current in-school offerings that allow students to get a leg-up on post-secondary life. He also notes that OPRF is exploring expanding its options under the state's Post-Secondary and Workforce Readiness Act.

"It's a competency-based pilot that focuses on students earning credits based on mastery of a concept versus hours in the classroom. It can free up time to allow students to fit in the state requirements for high school while adding in more options."

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

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