An Interview with Program Coordinator, Becky Adair

An Interview with Program Coordinator, Becky Adair

Becky Adair's youth education career began while she was still in college when she began volunteering for an inner city Minneapolis after school program. After graduating from Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a bachelor degree in sociocultural studies, Becky became an AmeriCorps volunteer for the non-profit educational organization Admission Possible.

Ms. Adair spent two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, teaching college preparatory skills to low income high school students. As a program associate at Arlington High School in St. Paul's Eastside neighborhood, she helped more than 60 high school students get accepted into colleges around the nation. Her full-time volunteer work included teaching after-school classes in writing, reading and algebra skills. She also coached students along the path to getting financial aid and acceptance into the colleges of their choice.

After her two-year tenure, Ms. Adair was hired as a full-time employee. She is currently a program coordinator within the organization. Her job responsibilities include managing the curriculum of classes, overseeing recruitment of both AmeriCorps volunteers and students for the program, and organizing events and activities, fundraising events and volunteer management. Although she's a "higher up" in the organization now, her career highlight is still the feeling she got when her first group of students were all accepted into college during her first year as a volunteer. "Knowing that I helped some kids get into college who may not have had the skills or resources to accomplish it without our program is an amazingly satisfying feeling," she says.

The education field is full of the prospect of change and reform. Ms. Adair is helping to pioneer the way the new face of education could look by providing alternative programs that address student-specific needs. She plans on continuing to develop her career as an alternative educational professional.

Ms. Adair & Her Career

Tell us about your career as a program coordinator for an educational organization.

I am a program coordinator for a non-profit organization called Admission Possible. The mission of the organization is to help talented, low-income high school students in Minneapolis and Saint Paul public high schools earn admission to college. The model of the organization is unique. We hire about 45 AmeriCorps members to basically do all of the work with the students. The individuals hired are young, recent college graduates that give a year or two of service, get paid very little, and work extremely hard to get excellent results with the students. My job as a program coordinator is to directly manage eight Corps members and to work with a team to lead all aspects of training and programming.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I find my job very rewarding for a number of reasons but I think the greatest may be that I like being part of an organization that is working to solve a problem. Low-income high school students do not have the same access to and preparation for college as middle class students, even if they are as motivated and intelligent as those students. Admission Possible works to give low-income students the same access to opportunities and the same preparation for college that a middle class kid would get.

What do you do dislike about your position?

I dislike inaccurate perceptions that are formed about our organization, especially since we are only seven years old. There are a few different examples I could give, but one belief would be that we just serve really smart low-income students that would make it to college anyway (without our assistance). While it would be easy to disprove this belief since our students' average ACT score before their preparation courses is around a 15 (which is very low), it becomes exhausting to continuously have to explain our mission and goals in order to gain validity.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Managing time can be very challenging. There are so many things going on that I can't possibly do everything I would like to accomplish in one day. I find myself wanting to spend time developing my volunteer staff, visiting the schools I oversee, and also wanting to have hands-on time with the students our program serves. It's a juggling act to balance and determine where I need to best spend my time in a way that will ultimately benefit the students we serve.

Handling conflicts with the volunteers I manage is also challenging. I have a non-confrontational personality, so every time I close my office door to have a meeting with a volunteer member about a conflict, I have to summon a lot of courage. Because I manage several different people, it's important to address issues right away but it's not something which comes naturally to me so it's challenging.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I would like to learn more about the non-profit business structure of the organization. There is a very large business side to what we do. We are developing our development department and I would love to learn more about grant writing, tax status, donation strategies, etc. that non-profits work with.

I am also considering continuing my own education. I can see myself as an educational professional for many years to come, and I think an advanced degree would serve me well. My bachelor's degree has opened a lot of doors and is what led me to this career, but now that I have experience in the career, I think that I'd like to gain more specialized knowledge to be able to go further in non-profit work.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your undergraduate education and degree.

I have a bachelors of arts in sociocultural studies from Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This degree combines anthropology and sociology courses to teach students about the diverse multi-cultural issues facing people in today's society, particularly in urban areas. This gave me the understanding that I needed to be able to work to assist students from diverse backgrounds in achieving their educational goals.

Can you tell us more about your school?

Bethel University is a private Christian school, which means that my classes had a faith-based component to them. However, the courses that I took which led to my work as a program coordinator were more broadly applicable than just a basic faith-based degree. What I learned at Bethel was tolerance and an understanding of the different backgrounds which people come from and the unique difficulties this can pose for them in society.

What led you to decide to enter the educational field?

In college, I developed a sense of passion for the less fortunate in our society. The classes I took and places I volunteered for in college helped me see that education is a key factor in the success of an individual. I realized that not everyone has the opportunities that I had to get into college and realize their educational dreams. Helping others in their education seemed like the most direct route to positive change to me, so I took it.

How has your education benefited your career?

It helped me have a different lens with which to see people and the world. I also have obviously gone through the college application process myself. That has really helped me to answer many of the questions and concerns the students I have worked with have had. Having gone through the college process also gives me a foundation of friends, a network of contacts and proof to my students and volunteers that I am competent and serious about my job. My education gave me the knowledge, tools, experience, credentials and resources which all combined to get me to where I am today.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?

One of the things that I've learned from my work is that setting and meeting your own educational goals is a highly individualized process. For some of our students, simply getting in to any college is the goal, whereas for others, the goal is more specific to certain schools or programs. I think that this is true for college students looking at working in this field as well; determining the class sizes, geographic location and type of education that you want and finding a school that coincides with that is the best course of action.

Are there any specialties in this field that students should consider?

My degree gave me a well-rounded perspective on urban culture as a whole. That allowed me to really explore my options for working in this area. For students who already know that they want to work with non-profits or to work specifically in program coordination, there may be more focused programs which would be better. Taking courses in management, non-profit writing, organizational structures and similar areas will give students a better understanding of the business side of this work which is at least as important as the social side of it which my education focused on.

The Daily Work

What exactly do you do on a daily basis?

Since I manage eight AmeriCorps members, I spend a lot of time supporting them by checking in with them at their schools and then observing their afternoon classes. I then follow-up with them through an email that provides feedback on my observations so much of what I'm doing is communication-based. I usually check-in and observe four of eight Corps members per week, monitoring their work and helping them to do better in their daily tasks.

Besides my responsibilities with the Corps member that I directly supervise, I also plan trainings and lead meetings for all 46 AmeriCorps members which requires time-intensive planning during the week. I also seem to spend plenty of time in meetings, either with my supervisor or the other program coordinators. As a program coordinator, my daily work is all about coordinating the different facets of the team which make the program run smoothly.

What are the greatest stresses in the job? What causes you the most anxiety?

Because of the great success of our program, there are very high expectations each year both from the students and their parents and the Twin Cities community. We don't want students to think that we are a free ticket to college, but at the same time we do want to instill a sense of hope in them. Maintaining that balance is a difficult part of this job. Our track record with this program has put more than 95% of our students into college over the last five years. Maintaining those numbers is doable, but it's not always easy.

The schools that we are present in also provide unique challenges because there are so many people involved in the work. Remembering the names of all the administrators I work with, the meetings, different school regulations is a challenge as well-but nothing a little organizational prowess can't solve! My work requires me to be highly organized; I pull together all of the frayed edges of the organization and sew them up tightly so we can do our work well.

What tools of the trade do you use most? Are there computer programs or anything like that which students need to know about?

There are basic computer programs which assist with organizing the information that I have to always be on top of, but for the most part, I think this is an individualized thing. Organizational skills can be learned and tools help but it's important to stay organized in the way that is most comfortable for you. I think that the most important tool that I use daily, besides general organization, is just staying in touch with the human side of things. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the numbers game and making sure to meet all of the statistics necessary to the job of being a program coordinator, but it's a very human job involving networking and managing of people. Ultimately, it benefits people and you sometimes have to work differently with different people's personalities. In that way, a degree in sociocultural studies really helps because it gave me a very broad understanding of the fact that all people have similarities and differences. It comes down to being human and working with others to achieve common goals.

What contributions do you feel your job offers to society as a whole?

We are working to fix a problem: leveling the playing field for low-income students in access to higher education. Colleges also want low-income students of color, but don't always know how to attract them, so we are valuable to colleges, not just the students.

Job Information and Advice

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about this field in order to be successful on both a personal and professional level?

Absolutely. It's possible to do the organizational part of it well without caring about the people behind it but that's only a small part of the job. You really have to believe in the work that you are doing to be able to get interested enough in the every day details to want to pull them all together. I think this is true of non-profit work and true of working in education in general. You do it because of the great feeling of being involved in making a good program run right. If you aren't passionate about it, that motivation simply isn't there.

What are the best ways to get a foot in the door of this work?

For me, it was really the internships and volunteering that got me to where I am today. I volunteered a lot during my college years and tried to absorb as much information as possible in order to be a good employee. The AmeriCorps program is a volunteer-based program which pays only a small stipend. This turns off many people but it's a great way to get involved in doing good work while gaining experience in the field. I also believe that staying in touch at the human level, networking with others and developing positive connections in the field all help to make it easier to get jobs down the line.

In Closing

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the field?

The position of program coordinator is challenging, but it's a highly-rewarding career. I can regularly see the benefit to others that my work is doing; there just isn't any other feeling like that. Helping others to succeed is a part of my job description and there just isn't anything more satisfying than that.

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