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Vital Link Bridges the Gap Between K-12 and Community College Career Education Feature Story
College can be a mystery for many middle and high school students but it’s a mystery that Vital Link and Orange County’s community colleges are working hard to solve.
Vital Link, an educational and workforce development nonprofit based in Tustin, California, connects middle and high schoolers with community colleges, giving them the opportunity to visit college campuses, talk with college faculty members, and get a bit of hands-on experience in a variety of subjects. All the programs are offered at no charge to students.
“We want to be sure that every student in Orange County has the ability to explore career paths so they can find the right career path for their future,” said Neda Arab, senior program director for Vital Link. “We want to give them the right skills to be successful for any career they go into.”
Vital Link was founded in 1995 by Roger Johnson, then president of Western Digital, to help high school students get training in soft skills that would make them better employees. When Kathy Johnson became CEO in 2001, she focused the program on career technical education. In 2004, they began integrating college tours as a way to introduce students to real-world activities and professional role models.
Vital Link now serves 30,000 Orange County students annually. Although the organization had to pivot to online activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has started returning to college campuses this academic year.
In October (which is designated as national manufacturing month), Vital Link arranged for students from across Orange County to get behind-the-scenes tours of manufacturing-related community college programs and businesses.
“Students meet with college professors to understand what manufacturing is,” Arab said. “They learn about the programs and we want to make sure students know what the next steps are.”
Five community colleges—Cypress, Fullerton, Orange Coast, Saddleback, and Santiago Canyon—participated in the events in which students had a chance to learn about and visit programs ranging from flying drones to public works and biotechnology. During these events, high school students get to try out work-related activities like using a 3-D printer or practicing welding.
“The hands-on activities are so valuable,” Arab said. “You’re doing something with your hands and developing skills that are vital for employers.”
Anthony Teng, dean of advanced technology and applied science at Saddleback College, said Vital Link handles the logistics so that community colleges can have a successful event bringing middle- and high-schoolers on their campuses.
“They are very supportive of the high school students and the middle school students,” Teng said. “They bridge the information gap between the K-12s and the higher education community so that both parents and students have a better feel of what a particular career pathway looks like.”
Vital Link works with high school teachers to determine which students are interested in participating and then provides supervision for the students on the tour.
“They are like an all-inclusive event planning and implementation partner,” Teng said.
As an extension of its mission, Vital Link also offers career-focused academies during the summer. The academies, which boast 40-60 students, range from a data analytics bootcamp to academies focusing on drones, engineering and design, and solar energy.
One of these academics, the N.E.X.T Academy, is held on a community college campus giving students a chance to see what a real college campus is like while exploring possible careers and learning about different industries through speakers, workshops and group activities. Attendees learn about how to enroll in college, the degree programs they offer, and workshops on soft skills such as communication and teamwork.
“They get to be really familiar with the college,” Arab said. “It’s not just one short field trip.”
Vital Link also sponsors several competitions for high school students that emphasize possible career choices that students might want to explore.
Teng said Vital Link provides an important service to students so they can expand their opportunities after they graduate from high school.
“It’s a very non-threatening and supportive environment so people can learn about the industry,” he said. “They are very student focused. They are able to build that bridge, so the students get the information they need to make good decisions.”