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Adapting a Growth Mindset and Persisting, Even When the Going Gets Rough

This month, we reached out to Theresa Atta Ifogah, Senior Director, Community Impact & Partnerships at Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), to learn how they are helping high achieving students of color—African American, Latinx, and Native American—realize their full potential, and make a difference. MLT has convened a uniquely powerful and vibrant community of Rising Leaders—8,000 and growing—who are propelling change throughout institutions, communities, and our nation. Join me in learning about Theresa’s thoughts and perspective on her passion and MLT’s work.

How would you describe MLT’s role in the college success space?

For nearly 20 years, MLT has been the secret weapon for over 8,000 Black, Latinx, and Native American students and professionals who aim to be leaders in the corporate world and tech industries. Our career advancement programs provide comprehensive coaching support to underrepresented minorities at key inflection points in their professional lives – college students seeking full-time employment upon graduation, early career professionals applying for admission to top business schools, and mid-career managers looking to advance to senior leadership in C-suite roles. Over the next several years, MLT will be doubling down on our efforts to engage college students because too many are struggling to realize the promise of higher education. About 60% of current Black college graduates end up unemployed, underemployed, or in jobs that do not require a college degree. Many are asking themselves, “Is college worth it?”

At MLT, we absolutely believe in the transformative power of higher education. But college success is about more than just putting your head down and getting your work done. In order to compete for the vast opportunities in today’s economy, students also must maximize college to build networks, access internships, and enhance their leadership profiles through meaningful campus engagement. It can be overwhelming at times, but MLT’s career development programming has been a game changer for our participants. Over 90% of fellows in MLT’s signature career programs secure job offers prior to graduation. We know the opportunities are out there because MLT partners with a vast network of companies looking to find diverse talent for internships and full-time positions. Over the next several years, MLT will be piloting a model to scale our career coaching programs at the university level. Our goal is to reach many more deserving students so that more of them not only earn a college degree but successfully launch careers for economic mobility.

Why do you think career prep services like MLT’s are important for underrepresented students?

Many of the students I have had the privilege of working with over the years were the first in their families to go to college. They are high achievers and trailblazers in their communities and usually really good at figuring things out. But these first-generation students eventually become first-generation professionals having to navigate the workplace in jobs unlike what their parents did. For example, my immigrant mom was a cook at a health facility for the homeless. Although she was full of wisdom, she could not offer practical guidance on how I could be successful during my internship at the US Department of Treasury when I was 18 years old. It was a different world than what either of us were used to!

MLT’s career programs and curriculum are not merely about job placement. Our coaches are industry experts with hands-on experience in the types of environments the program participants seek to access. We partner with over 100 companies to understand their expectations for high performance and “decode” the unwritten rules to successfully navigate corporate culture and secure career advancing opportunities. We help students build upon the skills and talent they used to get to college to excel in their professional pursuits.

In your experience, what are the key elements of successful career prep, and why?

“For career success, you’ve gotta have some P.E.P.!” Ok, that’s not an actual saying I use when I’m coaching, but it describes exactly what students need to do to stay ahead of the game. P.E.P. stands for 1) personal awareness, 2) exposure, and 3) preparedness.

Personal awareness means understanding one’s own motives and desires for pursuing any particular path. “Adulting” means embracing what is true to yourself rather than doing something because it is what someone else wants for you or told you that you should do. When it comes to careers, this means being attuned to what you enjoy doing that utilizes your strengths and can be compensated well for. Whether one wants to study finance, forensics or fashion merchandising, it needs to be aligned with your true interests, and those interests are allowed to evolve and change as you see fit.

Exposure is the process of learning about oneself through different experiences, usually involving a fair amount of trial and error. Some people do not like to try new things for fear of difficulty or failure. But truly high performers adapt a “growth mindset” through exposure to unchartered territory, and they persist even when the going gets rough. College offers plenty of opportunities for exposure to new people, courses, activities, and cultures. Step outside of what feels comfortable!

Finally, preparedness is key! I’ve always liked the saying, “Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.” This is especially true when it comes to the career journey. Oftentimes, opportunities arise unexpectedly, and I’ve seen students miss out because they didn’t have an updated résumé on hand, were scrambling for last-minute recommendation letters, or decided to wing it at an interview. At MLT, we believe luck is when opportunity meets preparation. The opportunities are out there, so be prepared!

How has COVID-19 impacted your work with college students, and the lives of students you’ve worked with?

The challenges of this past year forced MLT to adapt quickly in meeting the needs of our community. COVID-19 was especially disruptive to college students who were displaced mid-semester and lost earnings from campus jobs and summer internships that were rescinded. MLT shifted quickly into emergency response mode, providing financial assistance to critical-need students facing housing and food insecurity, family distress, health issues or inadequate access to technology for remote learning. We pivoted to 100% virtual programming, extended program deadlines and made additional adjustments to accommodate the needs of our students and alumni. The full impact of the pandemic remains to be seen as schools and businesses attempt to rebound post-COVID. However, there are signs of hope on the horizon, particularly with the unprecedented philanthropic investments in our nation’s HBCUs and companies making renewed efforts to attract, retain, and promote minority talent in response to calls for racial and economic justice. Our students are resilient, and we stand ready to continue to support their aspirations beyond these trying times.

We are facing unprecedented times and an uncertain economic recovery. What do you think is most important when thinking about career prep for underserved students right now?

Career planning may feel like a distant priority or even a luxury for students who are just trying to make it through this semester, especially for college seniors trying to graduate. Even though I mentioned earlier the importance of forward planning, I also believe in the principle of “first things first”. We are all dealing with stress at a higher level than usual, so it’s important to take each day as it comes. Some students had to face the difficult decision of whether or not to continue with school or take time off to take care of family and personal matters. In times like these, you can take care of present circumstances while still keeping the endgame in mind. It may take a semester or two longer to finish college if the pandemic disrupted plans, but the important thing is to take advantage of any support available and think strategically about next steps. Don’t go it alone, and a pause can be just a temporary setback instead of leading to permanent derailment.

What keeps you up at night?

I’d like to see greater progress made to connect high school and college curricula with the skills needed for today’s careers. There is a significant gap between what employers seek and what is taught in the classroom. Business is shifting at such a high speed and we need our students to start developing the technical, analytical, writing, and social skills to be competitive in our global marketplace. I am optimistic given the increased resources being made available to build knowledge in financial literacy and computer programming for younger students, but there is still room for improvement.

The opinions expressed in this article series are those of the featured contributors. They are not meant to reflect the opinions or views of Making Waves Foundation.