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Obama Youth Jobs Corps: Spotlight on Junior Year

In 2018, Urban Alliance and the Obama Foundation joined forces to launch the Obama Youth Jobs Corps (OYJC) to increase access to economic opportunity for high school students on Chicago’s South Side – a community where economic success is too often out of reach due to systemic oppression and reduced resources.

Spanning student’s sophomore through senior years, OYJC connects youth to economically-mobile pathways through work-based learning, mentoring, and networking, while building the next generation of local leaders through a focus on civic engagement. In year one, students receive an introduction to basic job skills and exposure to various career fields. In year two, students dive deep into the soft skills, job search skills, and digital literacy needed to succeed I the workplace, while developing a broader sense of servant leadership through community engagement. In year three, students have the opportunity to put their new skills to the test through Urban Alliance’s signature High School Internship Program where they work at organizations and businesses across the city in 10-month, paid internships under the guidance of a dedicated mentor. While much has been written about the impact of UA internships on students, today we are zeroing in on the heart of OYJC: junior year.

Zeroing In on the Junior Track

In their Junior year, OYJC students double down on the skills they were first introduced to during their sophomore year by participating in paid weekly skills training workshops. “The workshops are engaging and interactive sessions where students learn skills like time management and goal setting,” says Jamie Ricks, Urban Alliance Obama Youth Jobs Corps Program Director. “Introduction to these skills along with career exposure and professional experiences will help participants to succeed in life.”

While students spend the year covering a host of topics ranging from financial literacy to college and career planning, Urban Alliance’s junior-year curriculum is rooted in the principles of social and emotional learning, a proven framework for developing soft skills – the key human-to-human skills that account for 85% of future job success, according to Harvard researchers. In addition, students are given assignments and volunteer opportunities that prompt them to become more community-minded individuals and engage with their city in a new way.

“Ensuring our students are both civically and culturally aware as well as professionally prepared is an important pillar for our partnership with the Obama Foundation,” says Deldric Henderson, Urban Alliance Obama Youth Jobs Corps Manager. “Chicago is bustling with experiences that many students are either unaware of or have otherwise not been exposed to, and we wanted to help bridge that gap.”

Before COVID-19 the program introduced students to a variety of cultural experiences such as museums, festivals, parades, and multicultural engagement in partnership with groups like WorldChicago. Students also regularly participated in volunteer events to give back to their community. When safe, the team is excited to resuming these enrichment activities.

Fortunately, when Urban Alliance switched to virtual programming at the height of the pandemic in 2020, OYJC adapted their Youth Activism Project component, which elevates youth voice and power through project-based learning, for this new virtual world.

The Youth Activism Project’s primary goal is to provide students with the tools needed to raise awareness about community issues on their own. Throughout the year, students participate in mini-workshops that culminate in a series of student-led community education webinars on topics ranging from educational equity to community violence. Students not only develop key soft skills such as communication and teamwork, they also develop agency and learn to use their voices to effect change – an important lesson in these fraught times. More importantly, students learn to be confident, to trust their talents, and to dream a little bigger.

Aaron Parker, a 2019 Urban Alliance intern, was an enthusiastic participant in the Obama Youth Jobs Corps from the start. He finished his junior year workforce development training with perfect attendance, and his work ethic and positive attitude earned him a senior year internship with the Obama Foundation.

“Urban Alliance has helped me get to where I am now because of trust, strength, honesty, being on time for work, and staying active and persistent,” said Aaron. “UA has made me stay on top of my education making my future come true.”

Raheema Muhammad, a current senior at Wendell Phillips Academy who was very reserved before joining OYJC her junior year, says she has grown in confidence. “Urban Alliance made me more comfortable representing myself in front of a crowd,” she said. “I would say I’m more outgoing, more of a leader than I was before.”

As Raheema embarks on final training for her senior-year OYJC internship, she is looking forward to what she can learn and accomplish in person under new local safety guidelines.

“Because the program was online, I got comfortable on zoom…but now I’m trying to look for the in-person growth that I’ll have,” continued Raheema. “I’m looking forward to those communication skills that we didn’t get over the computer.”

Starting her internship with more than a year of training under her belt, Raheema is already a step ahead of the game and a leader among her peers. We can’t wait to see what she and all of our OYJC juniors will accomplish next!