Written by Papani Ellison

When I started my senior year of high school, I didn’t have the expansive network of relationships as many of my fellow classmates. I didn’t know too many professionals to ask for help or serve as mentors after I graduated.

Here is what we do know: Building those relationships through networking can help young people build social capital. But without being born with this specific type of privilege, I didn’t know where to start.

Finding out about Expeditions experiences at Summit Olympus in Tacoma felt like a golden ticket. It’s a program that allows students to explore and pursue our interests through hands-on, real world experiences within the school day. This can range from exploring different careers at local organizations and businesses to learning firsthand from experts in different professions.

At school, we’re often instructed to think within the confines of a box. But this was an opportunity to explore my personal, authentic interests. It’s a great feeling to be told we’re encouraged to think outside the box. Growing up, I was rarely given the space to explore my curiosities or to think about different career pathways after high school.

Two different Expeditions experiences this year are giving me that chance. Taking Intro to Design Building, in partnership with Toolbox Laboratories in Tacoma, taught us anything and everything design-related, from woodworking to learning about electrical circuits. One project entailed spinning a wheel, and then planning how to improve it, to make it better. I learned to think more creatively in ways I hadn’t experienced inside a classroom.

My second experience was Future Business Leaders, where we learned to innovate and design our own business model. It was in partnership with Threat Brown and the Young Business Men of Washington, a nonprofit that mentors young men, provides role models, builds teamwork and cultivates leadership in our community.

It was really inspiring. Threat shared his experience of being previously incarcerated, and how he attended Tacoma Community College after getting out and then established his nonprofit. That kind of exposure to different races, experiences, and stories is really important. It can help all students learn about transcending hardships. It can help all students grow.

Threat taught us to be ready to break through barriers and even take on challenges that make us uncomfortable. He made me see what was possible, and then believe it. Not only did we learn more about persevering, but we learned about networking in the real world and how to construct a business from the bottom up. We spoke with entrepreneurs who inspired and pushed us. We asked questions about how they built their business. This class made me ten times more confident. I realized that it’s good to start young; our generation has a lot of ideas.

Relationships matter. But I can tell you firsthand that not all young people have the same access to building a professional network. Programs like Expeditions allows us to not only figure out our passions, but also get exposure to different career pathways that can help with our own self-discovery. It’s scary to talk to people who are in suits. It felt unnatural to talk to some of these folks with such power. I’m just a kid. But we know there are critical benefits to building social capital. It’s a social network that can provide us access to support, information and resources.

There are too many instances when young people don’t feel that learning is connected to life outside the classroom. But engaging with business leaders and entrepreneurs in our community allowed us to get a real sense of the real world. And introduces us to leaders in our community who we can learn from and look up to.

Out of everything it taught us, mostly, we learned to just be ourselves. At the beginning it was daunting, unfamiliar. But I became more self-assured through these experiences. After I graduate, I’m going to go into architectural engineering and plan to create my own business of designing and building homes. Honestly, it’s a combination of my two Expeditions experiences. I can tell you for sure that I wouldn’t have the same answer if I didn’t have these opportunities. And I certainly wouldn’t have the connections in the community to network with or to ask for guidance.

My hope is that all students feel empowered to access the tools and resources that can help decide what to pursue after graduation, and then feel motivated to achieve it.