Our Context Was Different. Our Promise Stayed the Same.
How Propel America Shifted Gears for Virtual Learning
by Katherine Roger, Senior Director of Program at Propel America
I joined the Propel America team in early 2020, energized about the opportunity to support young people in their journey from high school to a well-paying, upwardly mobile job. I knew this was important from personal experience — I remembered my own journey working multiple part-time jobs to support myself in college. But I also knew so professionally, having spent my career teaching, leading schools, and supporting school systems. I saw how much we needed to connect schools, higher education, and employers, and better support students in planning for their career next steps beyond high school.
My role with Propel centers around planning for and implementing our programming — supporting the way our fellows best learn, grow, and prepare for their careers. I was getting into the swing of things last March when COVID-19 hit and everything changed.
Though the educational and employment landscapes were suddenly so different, our team was determined to make sure that our promise to young people stayed the same: that they would have the opportunity to interview for and obtain a great first job in their career pathway. We took it as an opportunity to re-imagine our model in a virtual environment. Like our school, training, and employer partners, we made the shift to virtual programming.
It came with challenges, but it also opened up some doors. We planned to have in-person programming in our four separate states — Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. But virtual programming allowed us to have a single virtual career preparation bootcamp, after which point young people could apply to be “fellows” and join us in training for a certified medical assistant (CMA) program in partnership with American Training Center (ATC) and National Louis University (NLU).
We launched this new model last summer; young people aged 18–24 from New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Louisiana, where we have hospital employer partners, could join. They received individualized support from local coaches and eventually had externships and job interviews locally. The virtual context meant our students could access the training from afar.
We watched them thrive. Our orientation session for bootcamp was full of anxious energy. Students were a little nervous to come off mute, and when they had questions, they often put them in the chat instead of saying them aloud. But from the start, our coaches were really thoughtful. They relied on the power of relationships. That first day, they made space for everyone. Their ice-breakers helped students get to know one another, and they selected affirming prompts that encouraged students to get in a positive headspace as they started the day.
Coaches also shared WhatsApp and GroupMe groups and encouraged students who were comfortable to connect with one another outside of the virtual class setting. They had small-group time with their regions in breakout rooms to further a sense of belonging, but they also had all-Propel time together to connect with peers nationwide. As the sessions progressed, students continued to apply the career preparation skills and competencies our coaches were teaching. Fellows shared reflections like, “my career map is helping me set my goals,” and “I knew what I wanted to do, but I hadn’t yet written out my plan, so this will help me get there.”
One of our fellows last summer shared she was nervous about participating in an online learning program because she’d been out of high school for a year and didn’t have the same opportunity to try virtual learning in the spring like many of her peers in the program. But after the bootcamp, things had changed. This young woman opened up in a whole-group reflection over Zoom and said, “Propel feels like a family.”
These relationships are invaluable. Our students ended up making friends with one another. They supported one another, and this continued when bootcamp ended and the CMA training program with ATC began. We had a student in Louisiana chatting with a student in New Jersey over FaceTime to walk her through the certified medical assistant coursework. This sense of Propel community, we hope, will bolster them both as they embark on their careers.
Now, many of these fellows are in externships — working in person at hospitals and clinics, practicing their clinical skills. Soon, they will be working full-time as certified medical assistants.
Though many partner schools and training programs are able to be in person again, Propel will continue to offer a blended learning option for certified medical assistant training this summer and fall, in partnership with NLU. As we go forward, we will be holding fast to what we learned, and staying alert and ready to learn more:
- Develop Relationships: As a former K-12 leader, I know the foundation of learning is built on the trust between a student and teacher. I quickly learned that this is just as important in a virtual environment. Before our fellows begin our synchronous learning sessions, they have the opportunity to meet with their coach one-on-one to start to get to know one another. That builds the foundation of a relationship that supports students throughout the program, instead of just being an anonymous person on a Zoom call.
- Build community and routine. With increased upheaval in everyone’s lives due to the pandemic, predictability and routine is critical. We at Propel have learned to leverage this, using the consistent structures of opening icebreakers and closing reflections on that day’s learning in small groups with a trusted coach to bookend our sessions. We offer consistent times fellows can stay after for office hours and check-in and provide a consistent place that materials and assignments are posted on Google classroom. Our ice-breakers are designed to empower our fellows, with questions like, “who is someone that inspires you? What is a goal you’ve set for yourself that you are proud of?”
- Cultivate a sense of belonging. Without many of the in-person gatherings that we used to be able to have, cultivating a sense of belonging even in an online environment is so important. We found that when fellows build relationships not only with us but with each other, they are able to even more quickly get their questions answered, help one another, and build lifelines as they go through training.
Throughout it all, we can’t be afraid to adjust when something is not working. These lessons came from reflecting, adjusting, and improving things along the way. We learn so much from our students, and I know in the coming months as we serve our next group of fellows we will continue to learn a great deal. As we do so, I am thinking about the young woman who said Propel was like a family. As we go forward, I want to make sure it continues to feel that way — for her, and for all our future fellows. To do so, we will keep improving, keep honing our approach, and keep providing the opportunities our young people deserve.