Successfully Navigating the First Week of Virtual Dream Big Career Camp

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Photo of Zoom meeting with Dream Big students and staff

Each summer, Dream Big Career Camp plants the seeds of empowerment by introducing high school students with disabilities to a whole new world of educational and professional opportunities. This year is no different.

A total of 10 students attended Dream Big Career Camp Week 1, taking place virtually from June 14-18. Youth Programs Manager Blair Dammerman was pleased with the level of participation.

“I think it was a reasonably good turnout considering that students have been on Zoom for 15 months,” Blair observes. “The students had plenty of opportunities to share their thoughts and ask questions. I think 10 was a good number.”

Known as Dream Big: Innovation, morning sessions during week one featured a variety of presentations and activities led by representatives from Boeing, Bayer, Cigna, Wells Fargo and Riot Games. Employees from these companies shared valuable insights during a series of panel discussions and mentoring sessions as well.

Jordan Coleman, a camp participant interested in computer science, came away from his mentoring session with a fresh new perspective on possible careers.

“This particular mentor had read my profile and knew I was interested in gaming. But, he said, ‘Jordan, you don’t have to focus only on game design. There are so many types of coding and so many different opportunities in software development,’” Jordan recalls. “He really broke down the different opportunities I have in front of me. He made me feel like if I get enough education, the world’s my oyster.”

Cigna, formerly Express Scripts, has partnered with Dream Big for many years now. Jackie Reis, Senior Recruiter at Cigna, says the themes of career camp align perfectly with her company’s culture.

“It’s about giving back to the community because we have such a large office in the St. Louis area. But we also have an employee resource group called ABLE, which is an affinity group for anyone who identifies as having a disability or serves as a caretaker for someone with a disability,” Jackie acknowledges. “So it’s something that’s ingrained in what we do. Our passion is to get involved and partner with students who are interested in learning about what career opportunities are out there.”

A hands-on banking activity led by Wells Fargo gave campers a glimpse into the importance of fiscal responsibility. Dream Big Camp Coordinator Danielle Giuffrida noticed the students’ enthusiasm for planning their financial futures, at least hypothetically.

“The activity allows students to pick a career, what their salary will be like, whether or not they have kids, where they will live, what type of transportation they’ll use,” Danielle describes. “Basically, it is a monthly budgeting exercise. It shows them what a typical day will look like as an adult.”

Afternoon sessions included important lessons on college readiness, requesting accommodations, building resumes, crafting cover letters and expanding one’s professional network.

For Jordan, the self-advocacy portion of the afternoon curriculum provided much-needed peace of mind.

“Personally, I’ve had a hard time advocating for myself in the past. It gives me anxiety,” Jordan admits. “I hate feeling like a burden. But now that I have this self-advocacy plan set out for myself, it makes it easier to ask for the accommodations I’m entitled to.”

Although career camp didn’t officially begin until Monday, June 14, Dream Big students, staff and counselors gathered for informal get-to-know-you sessions on the previous Thursday and Friday. Danielle says these team-building sessions offered a fun and informative introduction to camp.

“It is an opportunity to do some ice-breaker activities and cover some parts of the curriculum as well,” Danielle explains. “I think it helps students to feel more comfortable talking with one another and engage with the companies.”

Only a year ago, Dream Big students, staff and partner companies were navigating this virtual landscape for the very first time, uncertain of what career camp would look like under the unprecedented circumstances brought about by the pandemic. Now that everyone is fully acclimated to doing things remotely, Blair says planning for Dream Big Career Camp 2021 has been far less stressful.

“Not only has it been easier on us and our students, but it’s definitely gotten way easier on our companies,” Blair concludes. “They’ve had a year to gain so much experience putting together these types of virtual events, so they’re going into it with a lot more confidence.”

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