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UCC YouthBuild Students Set Sights on Brighter Futures Upon Receiving HSD
In a resounding testament to perseverance and commitment, a cohort of 14 students from United Community Corporation's YouthBuild program achieved a significant milestone in their journeys toward obtaining a career by successfully earning their High School Diploma (HSD) certificates.
The academic success of the 2023 YouthBuild Fall cohort proved to be a pivotal moment that amplifies the program's impact on fostering academic and personal growth and was highlighted by a commencement hosted at Newark Beth Israel Hospital, located in the City of Newark’s South Ward. Adorned in their ceremonial cap and gowns, the students received their diplomas on Nov. 17 following speeches from program leaders who underscored the resilience of the young individuals.
“This is just one leg of getting them to the finish line,” UCC Senior Director of Youth, Education and Employment Services Jacqueline Henry said. “Some of these students got to this point through a community effort. We saw them working together, studying together and encouraging each other to keep going when a student did not pass a subject.”
“It took our staff and their peers to really push them to stay motivated to graduate,” UCC YouthBuild Program Director Tasmeya Hall said. “The fact that a lot of them who were in that position, got to experience graduating and just to reach that goal meant a lot to me.”
UCC’s YouthBuild program stands at the intersection of education, vocational training and community service, providing a comprehensive approach to empowering young adults. It instills practical skills alongside academic knowledge, ensuring that graduates are well-equipped to meet the demands of the workforce and contribute meaningfully to their communities.
In addition, the program allows young people who need their high school diploma to obtain it while providing pre-apprenticeship training programs. Henry noted that following graduation, the students will continue with the YouthBuild program for another six months to work on their career and technical education training. She said students can earn certifications, for example, in the healthcare field or in construction. One of the recent graduates particularly interested in construction is Bryan Escobar who was elated to receive his diploma.
“I feel like I was given a second opportunity, and I took it and I'm grateful for that,” Bryan said. “I've got a lot of gratitude for the people who were there to support me.”
With his diploma in-hand, Bryan said he’s looking forward to getting right back to work and dedicating his time to the program to pursue a career pathway. “Now that I graduated, I just want to simply focus on my construction and do what I need to do here,” he said. “I want try to and find a job in construction.”
For other graduates like Marcos Reyes, commencement day was a full-circle moment. When Marcos said he was struggling in school, his guidance counselor handed him a flyer highlighting UCC’s YouthBuild program. Little did Marcos realize that when he brought the flyer home to show his mother, Bernice Guzman, she was not only more than familiar with UCC and the work the organization does, but she’s also employed at the agency’s food pantry. “She was like, ‘Oh, that's the company that I work for.’ It was basically fate,” Marcos said. “And my mom was telling me about the program too, but I was kind of skeptical and iffy about it at first.”
Despite his initial hesitations, Marcos eventually enrolled into the program, gaining valuable learning experiences along the way. “I finally got my diploma which is a big thing off my checklist, so right now I’m focused on construction to make sure I get my NCCER certificate and that I can get on board with these construction sites. Hopefully, I can get scouted by a good business or someone we partner with, and I can find a good job... I think that there are a lot of opportunities that I can spread my arms around and grab here.”
While Marcos remains steadfast in committing to the program to work toward earning his certifications in construction, he took a moment to reflect on commencement day and what it meant to him to see his mother there in the front row, applauding her son’s accomplishment. “I was very happy [to graduate], not for me, but for my mother who was there with my little brother,” he said. “I really pushed myself to get these certain things for my mom. She wants a better future for me and wants the best for me. It’s about being able to show her that I'm doing these things and that I'm actually putting in the effort so I can better my life. I know if I do it that she can be proud of me.”
As the graduates set their sights on earning their professional certifications, they are poised to become ambassadors of success, proving that with determination, support, and a comprehensive education, individuals can surmount challenges and build brighter, more promising futures. One grad who is already looking to make big strides down the road is Tiffany Gonzalez who said she is considering studying psychology when she decides to pursue her higher education.
“I want to help students, and I want kids to know that I am here to help just like how UCC was here to help me,” Tiffany said. “I'm looking at colleges right now to see which to apply for.”
The support Tiffany said she received from the YouthBuild program, both academically and personally, made a profound impact on her. Alongside the curriculum, Tiffany said the program gives students the skills they need to succeed in life. “I feel like communication is a real big one. I'm very antisocial, but coming here, I've really opened up a lot with everyone,” she said. “They make it comfortable for me to express myself.”
Those life skills, in part, play a pivotal role in teaching YouthBuild students how to handle obstacles whether they be in the workplace or in daily life. This component of the program encompasses anything from students knowing their elevator pitch, ironing their clothes, or even knowing how to ask for help.
Henry, the senior director for UCC’s Youth Education & Employment Services, said that to foster a better learning experience for the students, she wanted to ensure the program also had a social-emotional facet to it. The goal, she said, was to create a space where students felt free to open up and express themselves.
“It builds trust because a lot of them will come into the program safeguarded - those walls are up,” she said. “For many of our young people, this is the first time that they have been given permission to feel and to express how they feel. Once they become comfortable with that, you see the walls breaking down and that allows them to keep going forward. So, we have to first let them know this is a space that they can be open, vulnerable and transparent.” Those efforts proved to be instrumental in the students’ learning process, who highlighted some key takeaways from their own experience after graduation day.
“This program taught me how to be more disciplined - how to show up on time - what I got to do and just get it done. It woke me up to the real world,” Bryan said. "I'm really grateful for this program. I'm not alone. You have a lot of good people working here. They definitely pushed us to be better.”
“I learned that there are a lot of people in this world that are going through the same thing and that I'm not alone,” Marcos said. “That’s really going to stick with me for the rest of my life because I feel like anywhere I go, I might not fit in or might be behind, but I know that there are a lot of people out there who are in the same boat as me. And for that, those people like me, we all know we all need to stick together and work together.”