Posted by: Carol | May 12, 2011

The Road Less Traveled: El Camino College

A couple weeks ago, I attended El Camino College’s Counselors’ Conference, The Road Less Traveled, in Torrance, CA. As part of the CTE Pathways Initiative evaluation team, I’ve been to a few conference events set up for counselors, and each seems to have a different personality. This is my second conference at El Camino College, and while the event was marketed as a “CTE Middle & High School Counselors’ Conference,” I’d have to say that it was least like any counselors’ conference I’ve ever attended. And the major reason for the difference between the El Camino College events and other similar events elsewhere? The students.

At both of El Camino’s conferences – but especially this one – students were in attendance, and seemed to make up the majority of the attendees. At The Road Less Traveled conference, I’d estimate that of the approximately 150 attendees, at least half (if not more) were high school and college students, with the rest of the group made up by school counselors, teachers, and administrators. It certainly shifted the dynamics of the event and strongly influenced the direction that the speakers took, when addressing parts or all of the audience. Initially, I wondered if this was a less than optimal strategy – would content be confusing or “watered down” or just not useful to the counselors, because of the way it was being filtered in order to be accessible to students as well?

Students and educators in the main room of the El Camino College Conference

Whether it was intentional or not, having students present at the conference really allowed for the adults in the room to get a strong sense of what’s important to the students in the room. And if you, as an educator, know what’s important to the kids you’re working with, you’re really that much closer to being really effective at meeting the needs of your students.

The content presented at the conference was definitely angled more to the students than the professionals. While I didn’t attend all of the breakout sessions (there were two rotations, and three offered sessions, so I had to choose), overall, I’d say there wasn’t a lot of technical information or knowledge – few statistics or policies or program implementation details – being offered to the education professionals that were in attendance. Rather, there were a lot of personal stories being related and questions being asked to help students start bending their minds towards considering their possibilities for the future. And what El Camino’s conference coordinators did really beautifully, was line up some great personal stories for the participants to hear. Of particular note were their emcee, Carmen de la Paz and keynote speakers, staff from Roadtrip Nation.

Carmen de la Paz is a television personality who is well-known to HGTV audiences for her carpentry and woodworking skills.  She’s passionate about empowering students and women to push their boundaries, to realize their potential in a broad range of opportunities, and to identify, follow, and achieve their dreams. She was also full of glowing praise for El Camino College’s woodworking program, in which she participates. She gave an overview of the broad spectrum of opportunities her woodworking skills have brought her in the full group address, but later, in a panel, gave a more intimate view of the winding path her professional life has taken. At every opportunity, she spoke to students and the adults present, about the importance of having skills, education, and being ready to seize or even chase opportunity, should it wander into your view. “Dream big,” she urged the audience. “Put a big plan behind the dream and stick to it.”

Carmen De La Paz at El Camino College's The Road Less Traveled Conference

Road Trip Nation followed with the keynote address at the conference, and for those of you who are unfamiliar with this organization, I’ll be devoting an entire post to their work next week. These are people who take career exploration to an entirely new level, by facilitating interviews between students and professionals.  By helping students to identify the people working in industries and trades in which they’re interested, and then training them to call, request interviews, and then actually interview those individuals about their own careers, Road Trip Nation puts successful careers in perspective. With the insights and advice given them by the professionals they interview, students are able to start creating the “big plans” that will help them achieve their “big dreams.”

Brian McAllister of Road Trip Nation, speaking at El Camino College

Brian McAllister, one of the founders of the organization and original Road Tripper started off the presentation, telling the audience about the very first Road Trip project and what they were able to accomplish with just an idea, a neon green RV (the paint was on sale at Home Depot), some credit card debt, and the desire to learn more than they’d found in their books and at their desks in high school and college. He was joined in the presentation by another Road Trip Nation participant (and now staff member) who shared his experiences, going on a Road Trip in New Zealand. They featured some clips from interviews conducted by various seasons of Road Trip Nation (now in its 7th season as a series on PBS) participants and talked about how their original idea has evolved to be less about their own desires to explore careers, and more about helping others – namely students and educators – participate in or facilitate similar experiences.

In terms of counselor conferences, El Camino College definitely chooses “the road less traveled.” Have you attended or coordinated a counselor conference? What sort of things did you see/present?

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