A hand for the next generation
My wife is a high school history teacher (U.S. history) who is highly engaged with her students. One of the things she likes to do is organize out-of-school trips to explore local and regional history, and it’s not unusual for me to tag along and provide chaperone and general spousal support services, particularly if the group of students is large.
Whenever possible, I like to talk to these students about their interests, likes, dislikes, extracurricular activities, etc. As you can imagine, and as you probably know, the younger the student is, the less concrete and formed the answers to these questions are. By the time these students hit senior year, however, thoughts about life beyond high school become much more real and urgent. Campuses are visited, colleges are applied to, scholarships are pursued. All of this activity comes to a head in late April/early May as students make their final decisions about where they will go. It’s a tense time, with many students balancing the prospect of attending their “dream” school against the reality of the cost of that dream.
During this time of year, I am particularly evangelical about the composites industry. If I learn that one of my wife’s students has an interest in science or engineering, I will make an effort to give him or her a speech about the great potential of composite materials and manufacturing and encourage pursuit of a career in this industry. To paraphrase: “I have just one word to say to you: Composites.” I then launch into my elevator pitch about composites use in aircraft, spacecraft, cars and trucks, wind turbines, sporting goods, etc. “The future is bright!,” I say. I figure that on a very good day, about 10% of what I say to these students is absorbed, with an even smaller chance that my advice will lead to action. On a typical day, I figure these students think I’m a little crazy. “Sure, Mr. Sloan.”
This is an odd time in the life of an 18-year-old. Legally, these graduating seniors are adults, in the eyes of the world capable of making their own decisions and leading their own lives without parental supervision. The truth, however, is that they are still kids, susceptible to the kind of impulsive, rash, uninformed decision-making that begs for parental guidance. Still, when it comes to sending our kids to college, we expect them to have a crystal clear sense of the major they want to pursue and, by extension, the career they will have. This is not a reasonable expectation.
If you could talk to your high school self today, what would he or she tell you about his or her interests, abilities or understanding of the working world? What did you think your path would be? Did you know then what it meant to be an operator, engineer, quality control manager, operations manager, vice president, owner, entrepreneur or designer? Did you even imagine that you would be working in an industry that makes composite parts and structures? What, ultimately, was the path that brought you to where you are?
Possibly one of the best things we can do for students like my wife’s, before we launch them into the abyss that is the college experience, is to first help them see that there is not one post-high school path, but myriad paths, many of which don’t pass anywhere near a college campus. Second, we should, when possible, give them a chance to experience an actual professional work environment, to understand what it means to be an operator, engineer, designer or vice president — or nurse or attorney or journalist, for that matter. We want, ultimately, students to come to their avocations — to the composites industry — as informed as possible about the environment they are entering. And we want them to come because they see for themselves the opportunities and challenges that this industry has to offer — not just because Mr. Sloan said so.