Working with youth has its own rewards, challenges

Contact: Deanne Puca
Photo of Dr. Karen Blaisure.

Dr. Karen Blaisure

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Support and education for professionals who work with young people in programs outside of the classroom are growing, and Western Michigan University has responded by expanding its training and internships in this area.

The College of Education and Human Development added two degrees in 2019 to build its academic offerings, as well as community-based professional opportunities, helping its students become leaders in youth and community development.

Students seeking roles in afterschool, community service and youth activism programs; public and private human services organizations and agencies; and alternative education are benefitting from WMU's response to this quickly professionalizing field.

"Investment in youth requires an intentional investment in adult youth development professionals, particularly given the complex issues facing youth and communities," says Dr. Karen Blaisure, WMU professor of family and consumer science.

"Good intentions are good, but we need more when working with youth."

A master's degree and graduate certificate in youth and community development were added to the current bachelor's degree and Ph.D. programs available at WMU.

"We're very excited to expand our options in youth and community development at WMU, because Kalamazoo has a strong tradition in promoting work in this area. We hope these new academic programs will help further that effort," says Dr. Jeffrey Jones, associate professor of secondary education and coordinator of the Ph.D. program. “We see this work as an act of social justice and strive to elevate youth assets within our community.

"Our vision was to create programs for all levels of those who want to work with youth—a bachelor's degree for those who want to work with youth but not as a teacher, a master's degree for those who want to run those programs, and a Ph.D. for students who want to pursue scholarship in those areas. The graduate certificate can support those people already working with youth."

Student internship opportunities, such as with the Kalamazoo Youth Development, or KYD, Network, further their knowledge and skills.

According to Hannah Hultink, a youth and community development major who is expected to graduate in December 2019, the internship was as impactful for her as it was for the young people and families involved.

Photo of Dr. Jeffrey Jones.

Dr. Jeffrey Jones

During spring 2018, she assisted with external observations of KYD Network's partner groups to help them grow and improve. That experience turned into a paid position working as the advisor of the Kalamazoo County Youth Cabinet, a youth advisory council that KYD Network sponsors.

"In this role, I get the best of both worlds—working with youth directly and with KYD Network supporting other programs," says Hultink.

She has met with the KCYC, a group of 14-to-21-year-olds from around Kalamazoo County, several times a month as a group and with each member one-on-one.

Originally a sports journalism major at Michigan State University, Hultink transferred to WMU after working at a youth summer camp and learning about the WMU's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. When she reached out to the department to learn more, she discovered the new youth and community development major. She was drawn to the opportunity to work with children outside of school and develop relationships with them.

"If you're considering working with kids and having that connection and relationship with kids, this is the way to go," says Hultink. "The programs for these kids are so important. If you love kids in any form, you should consider youth and community development."

"The internships and community partnerships are invaluable. Interning in the out-of-school time sector offers students access to role models and gives them experience and insight they need to develop quality programming, engage youth as leaders in the community, promote social emotional learning, connect with families, and build an inclusive and equitable community," adds Blaisure. "Students also take core classes with faculty who have or are working in youth development."

For example, Dr. Meg Blinkiewicz, director of KYD Network and a WMU alumna, teaches the course in curriculum and assessment in youth development. Students who study with Blinkiewicz experience firsthand how quality youth development programs are developed and sustained.

For WMU student Sonia Kevnick of Lake Orion, that meant serving as a mentor for Kalamazoo high school students through Great Lakes PeaceJam, a foundation developing engaged youth leaders in their communities.

This involved working with young people on service-learning projects such as discussing racism, understanding its effects on communities, and participating in day-long events to build awareness.

"By being a mentor, it allowed me to see how much work goes into making a positive program for youth but also allowing the program to teach youth on how they can make changes in the world around them and see those ideas applied," says Kevnick, a youth and community development major at WMU.

She adds that she wants to continue being a youth mentor in some capacity after graduation, and that WMU's program has been the "missing piece" for students, such as herself, who already know or are thinking that they want to work with youth.

"Different Western college professors and outside organizations have been collaborating to provide classes and materials that allow students to look into the multiple avenues in youth and community development through different lenses and backgrounds," Kevnick says. "It allows for a student to network and have professors and instructors who have lived and worked in the field."

On a national scale, there has been a focus on increasing education for youth and community development professionals as those programs and needs have grown, adds WMU's Jones.

"Children and youth spend so much time in these programs, and there is a push to build their resources," he says, adding Kalamazoo County has over 50 youth-serving locations. "Over time, we hope as we start bringing in students from across southwest Michigan and nearby states, we can partner with groups in other areas."

Learn more about WMU's youth and community development programs online.

About the program

The youth and community development program at WMU is a collaboration among three CEHD departments: Family and Consumer Science;  Teaching, Learning and Educational Studies; and Educational Leadership, Research and Technology.

The Bachelor of Science prepares change agents to transform communities through an intentional investment in youth with interdisciplinary coursework and community-based experiences. Graduates may apply for the provisional Certification as a Family Life Educator. For more information, contact the College of Education and Human Development Undergraduate Advising Office.

The Graduate Certificate in Youth and Community Development is ideal for those currently working in the field who already hold a bachelor’s degree and would like to further their knowledge in this area, or for those pursuing a master’s degree in another area who would like to add a specialization.

The Master of Arts is an advanced course of professional development for leaders in informal learning environments and the out-of-school time sector. This program is also ideal for those currently working in the field, already hold a bachelor’s degree, and would like to further their expertise. For more information for the graduate certificate or master’s degree, contact Dr. Karen Blaisure.

The Ph.D. in Education and Human Development with an emphasis in youth and community development is designed for individuals seeking to pursue scholarly research and includes rigorous methodological training, individualized coursework and guided research with affiliated faculty. This program is intended for individuals already holding a master’s degree who are ready to begin doing research right away. For more information, contact Dr. Jeffrey Jones.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.