Nelida Garcia recently joined our team as EdNavigator’s first Director of Partnerships and Outreach. A proud first-generation college graduate herself, Nelida has spent her career supporting low-income and first-generation students to thrive in college and beyond. Nelida loves to read fiction and can occasionally be found camping in her spare time—but preferably with an air mattress.
Hi Nelida! Tell me a little about what you were doing before EdNavigator.
My career so far has focused on increasing education, opportunity, and success for students of all backgrounds. It's something that has always been very personally motivating. I am a first-generation college graduate, a child of immigrants, so navigating schooling wasn't always the easiest thing. I really wanted to make that easier for others. I started off doing a mix of school operations and college access at a charter high school in Brooklyn, New York. I love that age because they're very much young adults and you get that, but they're teenagers so they're a little bit silly. That role got me thinking about higher education and how to ensure that I wasn't just focusing on getting them to college, but also being successful there. I found a good home in career services at the University of Chicago and grew as a professional there.
What does a career services office do?
It’s a large priority of the University of Chicago. The office is huge—almost 50 staff. I dedicated my time there to programs that serve first-generation and low-income students. We did a lot of work to increase students’ exposure to different types of careers, and to job search and interview processes. Many students don’t know what a resume is or what it should look like, for example. We were walking students through how to apply, interview, all of that—starting as early as possible. We need to start having these conversations with 18-year-olds walking onto campus, rather than waiting until students are about to graduate.
We also offered a lot of experiential learning, helping students connect with employers through site visits, micro-internships, just building familiarity and skills in different fields. We wanted to provide some of those core experiences so that students could say, "Yes, I tried this and I loved it," or "I really did not like this at all, and now I know I'm not going to pursue it."
Did you have access to those kind of programs as a college student?
I think these resources existed, but I wasn’t privy to them. Something that's embedded in the first-generation experience is that some students—and this was the case for me—tend to be individualistic and independent. My parents believed in the importance of going to college, but they could never answer my questions. They always said, "You know, figure it out, ask a teacher," or "We trust you." And so I approached education like that. I didn't often think, "Oh, I can go to this office for help.” So I think some of these resources probably did exist, but I just didn't know to access them. I relied mostly on myself. Fortunately, for me that worked out. But it shouldn't be like that. When I was on the other side, I really wanted to make sure that students viewed us as a resource for them to use.
How did you approach outreach to students?
One great thing at the University of Chicago is that our programs were tied to a larger university scholarship initiative. Right from getting admitted, students received information about our career programs. We also worked a lot with student organizations. We would embed ourselves in the places students were already, so that we were a natural part of their college ecosystem. It’s harder when students have to go out of their way to find you.
Now you’re EdNavigator’s first Director of Partnerships and Outreach. What are you excited to work on?
I love being a connector, bringing different people, organizations, and companies together, and being able to satisfy their specific needs. I'm constantly asking myself, what does this stakeholder need? What are they trying to achieve? And then how can we help them do that?
How do you approach that when we have so many different kinds of partners?
A lot of our original partnerships, of course, are workplace-based, where our services are offered as an employee benefit. We have excellent employer partners. So we’re working with them to best reach their employees and engage them. And now we also have these community partnerships, where our navigation services are offered to the families they serve. That doesn’t just mean we can work with non-profits that serve families, and then offer navigation services to those families. We’re also building relationships in places where families interact and reside. I think about, for example, religious institutions. Those are often seen as channels for information and community, so tapping into that can be a valuable way to reach families. Or tapping into government agencies that many families already use. Of course, working with schools, and helping school leaders understand that we can alleviate some of the challenges they might be experiencing, especially during this critical time, as we're looking at the very pronounced effects from the pandemic. So I’m thinking a lot about how we reach families where they are already are. It’s a lot like reaching college students. There’s a lot of creativity involved.
It also sounds like there are some potential pathways that may be new for our work, which is pretty cool.
Exactly. When we were in the middle of the pandemic, we often heard that we can't have things go back to the way they were before, you know? And now things are kind of opening up again. So this is the time. Now is the moment to reimagine how we do our work. Not just at EdNavigator, but across so many sectors of the workforce. I think that's exciting. We won't always get things right, but we learn from doing. I'm excited to start the doing.