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Answering the Call: PursuitWise Connects Students to Careers, College Feature Story

March 22, 2019

As a recent parolee, Julio (whose last name has been intentionally omitted) knew that if he wanted to make a better life for himself, it needed to start with education. A community college was the obvious choice. But despite this desire and his attempts to apply, Julio failed to enroll.

Today, Julio is a student at Cypress College. His future is in front him, and so is a well-paying career. But none of this would have been possible if not for PursuitWise.

Initially developed as a pilot program for the Energy, Construction and Utilities sector, PursuitWise is a groundbreaking career-counseling service that uses short assessments and trained career counselors to place students on a sensible path. It works by aligning student interests with high-demand occupational pathways, and then connecting those students to educational programs at regional, Orange County community colleges.

“Our whole goal is to help prospective students make more clarified decisions,” says Serena Santillanes, a 20-year veteran in the career counseling profession and one of PursuitWise’s founders. “What makes PursuitWise so effective is that we’re applying a career-counseling model to pre-enrollment. This can translate into a more efficient completion strategy and better student outcomes.”

Why is this important? Because according to research, 70% of students who apply to community colleges fail to actually enroll. It’s a staggering number, and one that must be addressed if California is to meet the workforce demands of the future.

“PursuitWise provides an important service to prospective students,” says Gustavo Chamorro, Orange County Director for the Los Angeles/ Orange County Regional Consortium and a key supporter of the service. “It provides them with the opportunity to connect to a Career Navigator, who can assist them with questions regarding community colleges in Orange County, jobs and careers, and other areas where they might need some guidance.”

Based on the success of its pilot program, PursuitWise has spent the last several months expanding its scope to include five more high-demand industries: Business & Entrepreneurship; Health Care; Retail, Hospitality & Tourism; Information, Communication Technologies & Digital Media; and Advanced Transportation & Logistics.

During this time, stories like Julio’s began to shine a light on the life-changing impact that such a service can make. But they also revealed a deficiency that had to be addressed.

“We realized that we needed to educate the community about this free service,” says Santillanes. “The populations that really needed our services were not going to be looking for us, so we were going to have to go out and find them.”

As a result, PursuitWise expanded its outreach efforts to regional high schools and community organizations like the Irvine Boys and Girls Club, Hope Builders, and the OC One-Stop Center. The response has been tremendous.

At a recent outreach event at Valley High School, PursuitWise counselors presented to a group of 158 high school juniors who were not planning to attend college.

“It’s very apparent, when you see how our navigators interact with students, that they care,” says Sarah Goldflam, Navigator Services Manager at PursuitWise. “And students can tell. Their attitudes change right there in the room.

“They take our assessments, get an idea of what’s out there for them, but it doesn’t stop there — they know they can call us anytime to get their questions answered.”

By the end of the event, 87 students had signed up for the service.

“Clearly, these are the kinds of engagements that we need to be making and seeking out,” says Goldflam.

Julio’s story highlights the importance of this outreach and the positive ripple effect that PursuitWise is already starting to have across the region. While Julio hadn’t attended a PursuitWise presentation himself, a friend of his had. His name was José, and he was also a parolee.

After 17+ years in prison, José had re-entered civilian life, committed to making positive progress, any way he could. Unsure where to start, he contacted PursuitWise after hearing about their presentation at the Southern California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Parolee Education Program.

Ruby Pastrana, one of PursuitWise’s trained career-counselors or “Career Navigators,” took the call.

Over the course of a few conversations, Pastrana helped him identify his career goals and complete the application process. Understanding the difficulties parolees often have in transitioning to civilian life, she reached out and connected José with Project Rise, a student group dedicated to supporting previously incarcerated students.

Pastrana’s efforts paid off. Today, José is a student at Santa Ana College, pursuing studies in computer science.

According to Santillanes, this success highlights the “high-touch” support services that make PursuitWise unique among career services programs.

“Ruby embodies that signature-level of customer service that we want to give all of our students,” says Santillanes. “This isn’t a one-size-fits-all service — we have to be able to meet students where they are.”

That approach has worked wonders for students like José: “My experience working with PursuitWise has been amazing,” he says. “The counselor I worked with is really nice, has a lot of patience with me, answers all my doubts and I feel really comfortable. It’s really a blessing finding a program like this and knowing there are people who are willing to help you out.”

Julio’s experience with PursuitWise has also been positive. As a recent parolee, he had committed to the idea of going to school, but had failed to complete the enrollment process because of a simple misunderstanding — he didn’t know to setup a student account and therefore failed to receive his acceptance email and student ID.

“The lesson here is the deep impact small obstacles can have on students who are already unsure about going to college,” says Pastrana. “For students who are already dealing with other significant life pressures, little things like this can mean the difference between success and failure.”

As highlighted by Julio’s experience, PursuitWise’s power comes from its ability to intervene early and provide the kind of professional and personal guidance students need to get over whatever obstacles are holding them back.

Today, thanks to PursuitWise and Pastrana’s efforts, Julio is a student at Cypress College.

“I think of us as a team, trying to understand the needs of these students,” reflects Pastrana. “We all have community college experience, so we’re familiar with the obstacles students might face, and we all come from diverse backgrounds and have awareness of different cultures and values.

“For us, answering the call is a privilege.”

For more information about PursuitWise and the services it provides to students and adult learners from all backgrounds, please visit: https://pursuitwise.com/ .