ACCESS students explore Careers Without Borders

Former NFL player Ronnie Lott speaks at the Careers Without Border series.
Football hall-of-famer Ronnie Lott shares his story during the Careers Without Borders series.

From actors to astronauts to professional sports hall-of-famers, Careers Without Borders has brought professionals from differing fields to the computer screens of students in alternative education. 

In 2020, the guest speaker series was created within the Alternative, Community and Correctional Educational Schools and Services program, or ACCESS, at the Orange County Department of Education. Launched by now Assistant Superintendent Vern Burton and Alternative Education Program Specialist Dr. Nathan Goodly, the program was designed to open students up to different career paths and instill confidence in their personal journeys.  

Through the interviews, the Careers Without Borders program allows students in alternative education the opportunity to gain insight on the humble beginnings of its successful guest speakers.

“Our goal,” said Goodly, “is to inspire students to reach their highest potential.” 

When the pandemic left students disconnected, the co-founders started brainstorming ways to keep students engaged while doing all their schoolwork primarily online. 

“We were trying to get students inspired, but also make the program educational,” Burton said.

From there, the Careers Without Borders virtual series was established — welcoming its first featured guest in November 2020 with local boxing champion Abner Mares

Inspiring interviews

The series’ main audience consists of high school students enrolled in ACCESS, alongside their teachers and support staff. Some students tune in live from their classrooms to join the conversation, while their non-traditional school students watch recorded Zoom meetings posted on a website designed by Education Technology User Support Assistant Anne Wolff. 

Through the virtual format, Burton and Goodly moderate the discussions and promote engagement and collaboration by encouraging students to submit their questions through the Zoom chat feature or verbally chime in during the interview. Since their first guest, students have had the chance to hear inspiring stories from industry legends, such as hip hop DJ and record-scratch innovator Grand Wizzard Theodore and popular character actor Luis Guzman. 

Despite their highly successful roster of past guests, the co-founders focus on featuring more than just famous names and faces. Goodly said they try to select the industry professionals based on their similarities to students’ experiences. With relatability in mind, Burton and Goodly give these high schoolers the chance to interact with speakers who can show them that it’s possible to achieve great things no matter their starting point. 

“Every single speaker that comes on, they share that they’ve had low points,” Burton said. “But, with that, they can show the kids how to overcome their low points.”

Reaching high 

In March 2021, ACCESS connected with activist and community leader Eugene “Big U” Henley to hear about his childhood in South Central Los Angeles and his incarceration later in life. Henley explained to the group how he used his success to become a secondary education advocate in his community and create opportunities for the underserved through his nonprofit organization, Developing Options. 

Burton hopes that stories such as these motivate young people when considering the possibilities that their careers can hold. Not only can the speakers inspire students, but they have expanded their options after high school. 

“I want to show that this program helps open up opportunities,” Burton said. “For example, when the Grammy Museum was featured, they offered free museum trips to the students.” 

In addition, Burton mentioned that past guest speakers from universities have also offered free campus tours to encourage the pursuit of secondary education. 

Students, teachers and support staff in ACCESS have shared their excitement about the speaker series with the program’s founders, even encouraging their families and friends to watch the insightful interviews alongside them.

ACCESS is an accredited educational program that serves students from transitional kindergarten to transitional adulthood to provide opportunities outside of the traditional school trajectory. Through work with local school districts, the program offers additional support and interventions to approximately 10,000 students in need of alternative options to complete their high school education.  

These options allow students to learn in non-traditional settings as they obtain the academic credits needed to graduate with their school district or within the program. 

Expanding opportunities 

ACCESS students and administration have connected not only with celebrities, but also a senator, a medical doctor, and even the family behind the locally-produced Tapatio hot sauce company. In their most recent session, they learned about the talent and dedication behind the career of professional football hall-of-famer Ronnie Lott. 

Over 30 guest speakers have participated in the Careers Without Borders speaker series — and the program is far from over. 

Burton and Goodly are planning to expand their scope of guest speakers this summer, with some well-known creatives in the works. This Thursday, June 23, Burton and Goodly will join in conversation with seasoned actor Danny Trejo to hear about his early life and expansive career. 
Students and their families can tune into the Careers Without Borders speaker series and learn more here.