Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield is addressing the issue of African American male underrepresentation in the workforce. The college launched the Open Door Mentorship Program a year ago, which has so far helped 25 male students get a head start in gaining professional experience.
Local businesses committed time and resources to offer internships, while program coordinator Michael Phelon offers year-round support and guidance.
"Even over the summer, I keep in contact with the guys--just to make sure they're on track, making sure they're coming back if they have summer classes" he said.
Phelon requires students to meet with him once a week. He organizes workshops led by local business owners and takes the students on field trips into the community. He says exposure is important to help students make these connections.
Other organizers, such as Jennifer Foster, echo this idea. She is the deputy director for Adult Education and Workforce for the Illinois Community College Board. Foster said early exposure to different career paths is important for minority students, especially if they are expected to join the workforce after graduation.
The program, she said, "helps them get their foot in the door, helps them to learn different experiences, helps them really contextualize what it is they are getting ready to embark upon."
Joseph Kalala, a current Open Door student, said he's tried to get internships in the past without success. That changed when he was recruited to join the program and introduced to the Springfield-based coffeemaker company BUNN. He was invited to intern with the company's IT department after completing a job shadowing exercise.
"I only had a little bit of experience with computer science," he said, "but being there was more. It really meant a lot to me being there."
Phelon says the students he recruits are enthusiastic to be part of the program and don't mind the extra work. "Most of the young guys -- they're looking for that attention, they're looking for someone to believe in them."