By Rodney Johnson, recent graduate of the Earn and Learn Program at Tulane’s Cowen Institute

If I could talk to my younger self, I would say, “If you want it, fight for it. You’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize.” I would tell myself not to give up.

My younger self would be proud of the person I have become. I graduated from Abramson Sci Academy a year ago, on May 18th, 2018. Now, I have started a full-time job at Tulane University in the Facility Services Department. In about six months, I will start taking night classes at Tulane to work toward a degree, probably in business administration.

A program called Earn and Learn Career Pathways at the Cowen Institute helped me get to where I am now. Last spring, it felt good to graduate from high school. I was proud. But afterwards, what the teachers had been saying about how independent you have to be really sunk in. I never really thought about going to college until I got out of school. Once I was out of school, I realized I wanted to own my own business, and I knew I would need more training and education to do that.

The college and career advisor for Collegiate Academies, Ms. Yoo, helped me figure out what to do next. We looked at different programs online that help high school graduates get good jobs and enroll in higher education, and Earn and Learn stuck out from all the rest. It is a program for students who are eighteen to twenty-four years old, whether they just graduated or have been out of school for a while. Earn and Learn helps students go back to school or get a full-time job in a career pathway that interests them and will lead to a life of financial stability.

With Earn and Learn, I saw that you could learn electrical, carpentry, and plumbing — hands-on stuff. I was interested in that. Coming up, I always liked to work with my hands. The first job I ever had was cutting grass, and I liked it. Later on, I helped build a house with Uncommon Construction. I liked dealing with houses and buildings and being outside. I also realized there would always be jobs like this; people are always going to need houses and air conditioners and ventilation systems. By learning to do those types of jobs, I could set myself up for success.

So I applied for Earn and Learn and got in. It’s a nine-month program where you work as a paid apprentice with Tulane, Gallo Mechanical, the Hilton, the Ritz-Carlton, the DoubleTree, or Brennan’s. We learned on the job to prepare for careers in skilled crafts, hospitality, and construction. We also took classes with the New Orleans Technical Education Provider (NOTEP). At NOTEP, I took classes to receive my National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) Core Certification.

We also met as a group at the Earn and Learn office every Thursday to develop our professional and leadership skills. We worked on group projects. We also built strength and trust among our cohort, so we could look to each other for help and depend on one another.

For my apprenticeship, I worked as an HVAC technician at Tulane, where now I work full-time. My supervisor is Gerard Wicks. He has taught me a lot already. At first, during my apprenticeship, I thought it would just be watching him do everything, but that is not what it has been like. First, Mr. Wicks teaches something to me, and then he shows it to me again. Then, it is my turn, but he stays there watching to make sure I do everything right.

There is always a lot to learn. At Tulane’s campus, from the baseball stadium to the kitchen, wherever there are exhaust fans, I have a job to do. I am happy to have been hired to work at Tulane full-time. I enjoy the HVAC work very much, but I was also interested in this opportunity because of the educational options it provides.

Education is very important to me, and once I have been working at Tulane for six months, I will be able to enroll in classes or a degree program at Tulane tuition-free. My parents don’t have college degrees, but I will earn one. I know a bachelor’s degree opens up new opportunities and the path to even better jobs. It will also make my family proud. My grandmother is eighty-two, and I want to accomplish this before she heads on out.

I am not the only recent high school graduate in New Orleans who feels this way or wants these opportunities. Other young people deserve to have the experiences I have had. So if I met someone with a million dollars to give, I would want them to spend it on Earn and Learn. I’d tell them it’s for kids who want to be something in life, but who have had a hard time finding the resources they need to get where they want to be.

I would tell them that Earn and Learn matters for our city, because our young brothers and sisters are turning to the street; it is time for them to realize that there are jobs out there for them. They have other options and they can have a good future. They aren’t by themselves. New Orleans is behind them.

I know New Orleans is behind me, too. So when I think about my future self, I feel hopeful. Through the Earn and Learn program and my job at Tulane, I have already accomplished so much, but I know there is so much ahead of me, too. I look forward to focusing on my work, earning my next degree, and making the most of these great opportunities.

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